RICHMOND -- Four months before Virginians decide whether to have a government-run lottery, voters are betting big bucks on competing public relations efforts, one designed to return legalized gambling to the state and the other to banish it.

Every week for the past six weeks, $3,000 has poured in to the Virginia Beach office of a statewide group of lottery advocates. The $18,000 total, solicited by telephone, pales next to the $500,000 in pledges the group claims to have picked up around the state.

In Washington, a leader of antilottery forces also has been busy raising funds: $25,000 in cash from Virginia Methodists and $5,000 each from a Baptist association and a group of Lutherans. "We've barely begun to raise money," declared Robert R. Weed, who is directing the fund-raising.

Along this city's historic Main Street, the financial and spiritual heart of old-line Richmond, corporate heavies are fairly tripping over one another to help underwrite a second media campaign against the lottery. Free Enterprisers Against Lottery (FEAL) received $5,000 from the chairman of CSX Corp., the giant transportation conglomerate headquartered here, as well as thousands from other current and former executives of the Ukrops grocery chain, Leggett department stores, Signet Bank, Ethyl Corp. and other firms.

FEAL leaders, no strangers to mass marketing, plan to tap Richmond's considerable yuppie population for contributions this summer. "We are going to try to put together a group of young professionals against the lottery -- people in the forty-ish range -- and let them have a chance to fight this thing," said Charles J. Davis III, a CSX Corp. executive.

The outpouring of money for the two sides of the lottery question is surprising not only because of the volume -- passions tend to run high and wallets spring open when it comes to so-called "sin" issues -- but also because it is happening so early, weeks before the traditional Labor Day start of political campaigns.

And that is precisely how lottery advocates and opponents are approaching the coming battle: as a no-holds-barred political scrap complete with phone banks, high-powered consultants, big-name endorsements, floods of direct mail, bumper stickers and last-minute media blitzes to get out the prolottery and antilottery votes.

"We're playing for keeps," said Weed, a Republican veteran of state electoral wars who is now a $4,000-a-month consultant to Virginians Against State Sponsored Gambling, which is the other major antilottery group.

Strangely, the hottest political struggle in Virginia this year is one that cuts across party ideology, geography, race, income level -- most of the demographic factors that go into an election formula. Although there is somewhat more support for a lottery in Northern Virginia and somewhat less in the conservative southwest corner of the state, early polling data suggest that for most people legalized gambling is a clear-cut issue: They either favor it or they do not.

And, apparently, most Virginians today want a lottery. A $10,500 poll commissioned by FEAL showed that, overall, at least 55 percent of the state favored a lottery, while 35 percent was against. The poll showed a "hard core" favorable vote of 38 percent and a similarly strong vote against of 33 percent, according to FEAL spokesman Jeff Gregson.

"Most people say, 'Yeah, why not a lottery? What's wrong with it? Why shouldn't Virginia have one?' " Gregson said. "Our job is to raise visibility" between now and Nov. 3, when the lottery referendum will be on the statewide election ballot.

So far, the lottery argument has been framed this way: Proponents say the state's share of the gambling proceeds would amount to a windfall for the government, at least an estimated $200 million a year and perhaps twice as much under the most optimistic forecasts. People are going to gamble anyway, so why not let the state benefit under a legalized, carefully controlled system, supporters say.

Also, public lotteries in Virginia are almost as old as the state itself; no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson supported the concept, and in the 1800s before the Civil War, the General Assembly authorized lotteries to finance canals, roads and other public works.

The opponents' case boils down to the contention that a lottery would be a bad deal for the state. Revenue to the state treasury, they say, would never reach $400 million, and its social costs -- increased illegal gambling, bad checks, bank losses, teen suicide, embezzlement and even child abuse, according to one antilottery pamphlet -- would be too high a price to pay.

In a state that takes enormous pride in its history and traditions, a lottery simply would be un-Virginian, some opponents say.

Lottery foes also are raising the specter of another invasion of "carpetbaggers" -- lottery equipment manufacturers that view Virginia as a bellwether state in establishing lotteries throughout the South and are prepared to spend significant amounts of money to see that the Old Dominion follows the District, Maryland and 23 other states with a lottery.

Spokesmen for these manufacturers bristle at the charge. "I can assure you we do not intend to come in and throw money around," said C. Gray Bethea Jr., the vice president and general counsel of Scientific Games, the world's largest producer of "instant" lottery tickets and an underwriter of prolottery campaigns elsewhere in the country.

In an interview from his office in suburban Atlanta, Bethea said his firm does plan to make a "modest contribution . . . way under six figures" to Virginia's lottery advocates.

But he added: "It's just not for us to decide. It's for the people of Virginia to decide."