RICHMOND, SEPT. 22 -- "It's like a dance of lobsters," one observer said of the lethargic debate over whether Virginia voters will approve a state-operated lottery in the Nov. 3 election.

The issue of whether Virginia should join the District, Maryland and 21 other states in sponsoring gambling is being debated at small gatherings around the state but appears to be sparking little general interest.

"I don't hear anyone talking about it," said Del. Ford C. Quillen (D-Gate City), who voted to put the question on the ballot. But like many legislators seeking reelection, he is happy not to have to debate a potentially emotional issue that cuts across party lines.

From church pulpits and Rotary Club rostrums, opponents warn that state-sponsored gambling is immoral, a tax on the poor, an invitation to organized crime and a prelude to parimutuel betting and casino gambling. Proponents counter that a lottery is a voluntery tax that can provide additional revenue for education, mental health and other pressing needs.

"The passion is all on one side, of the opponents," said the official who offered the lobster analogy. "But if they can't get a big turnout, it should pass."

Conventional wisdom is that the larger the general turnout, the more likely it is that the referendum will be approved. Polls indicate that a substantial majority of Virginians either favor or do not oppose state-sponsored gambling.

For example, about two-thirds of the callers to a televised lottery debate last week favored the idea, although they wondered how the proceeds would be spent, a question that the General Assembly will have to address next year if the referendum passes.

However, lottery proponents say that with no candidates for national or statewide office on the Nov. 3 ballot, passage may be endangered by a low turnout, especially in light of the caliber of the opposition, which includes all four living former governors, state Attorney General Mary Sue Terry and a number of church groups.

A major unknown factor is what Gov. Gerald L. Baliles will do. He said today that he will "have something to say" about the issue upon his return from a trip to the Far East next month.

Baliles gave encouragement to lottery backers last winter by assuring them that he would sign legislation authorizing a referendum if the legislature passed it, but he has taken no public stand.

Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder also has remained neutral. Terry repeated her oppositon today, saying that it is a position she has held since her days in the legislature.

Money could be a key to the outcome.

Robert R. Weed, a D.C. fund-raiser hired by Virginians Against State-Sponsored Gambling, one of two groups spearheading the opposition, said that his organization plans to spend $250,000 but that "so far we've only collected $80,000. We're desperate for bucks."

Weed said his organization will distribute 3 million pieces of literature in October "if we can afford to get it printed."

In states that have put the lottery question to a vote -- in recent years only North Dakota voters have rejected a lottery referendum -- campaigns have been financed largely by companies that stand to benefit from passage.

One of them, Scientific Games of Norcross, Ga., which has won the start-up contract in each of the past dozen states to approve a lottery, reportedly gave $5,000 to the Virginia campaign in the spring.

But since then, support from out-of-state companies has slowed, apparently because of a flap involving the lottery's most persistent and visible promoter, Del. J.W. (Billy) O'Brien Jr. (D-Virginia Beach).

O'Brien, the chief sponsor of the referendum, which he had advocated for more than a dozen years, relinquished his role in July after it was revealed that he was being paid $185 a day by lottery equipment firms to promote the issue.

Anthony F. Troy, a former state attorney general whose law firm has been retained by Scientific Games, said that "they are not going to try to sway the process." The firm, a subsidiary of Bally Manufacturing Corp., which owns casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., and Las Vegas, "will contribute in proportion to other players," Troy said.

Ken Storey, a spokesman for Virginians for the Lottery, the primary organization promoting passage, said his group plans to begin an advertising campaign, including television commercials, in the second week in October.

"Money is strategic," Storey said, "and we're not going to reveal how much we will spend until we have to," which is about two weeks before the election.

The question of how much a lottery will produce -- estimates range from $200 million to $400 million a year -- has become one of the major arguments in the campaign.

Virginians for the Lottery have denounced as "voodoo economics" a brochure being distributed by opponents in which Del. Bernard S. Cohen (D-Alexandria) contends that Virginia families will have to spend an average of $1,100 a year for the lottery to be successful.

More accurate, the proponents say, is that adult Virginians will have to spend an average of $124 a year, or $2.38 a week, to generate the $201 million profit that a study by the Senate Finance Committee said would be an average annual return on sales of $530 million.

Virginia voters rejected a lottery by a ratio of 5 to 3 when it appeared on the ballot in 1970.

Since then, however, the state's population has grown, especially in urban areas, which usually provide the major support for lotteries.