RICHMOND -- The smile never left Edwina P. Dalton's face last year when the Democrats who control the Virginia Senate killed every one of her bills, allowing only a measly study resolution of hers to pass. They thought it would teach the freshman senator from suburban Richmond a lesson. It did. This year, the 52-year-old widow of Virginia's most recent GOP governor does not smile nearly as much, nor does she have to. She is at once the hottest political property among state Republicans, the early leader in the race to become lieutenant governor this fall, and perhaps -- just perhaps -- the one person who can bind the wounds of her notoriously fractious party. Those are odd roles for Dalton, who despite her many years as a political wife is in many ways a novice in the cutthroat world of Virginia politics. She still laces her speeches with sugary one-liners -- "Wow! What a crowd!" was printed in the text of one last year -- she concentrates on no lofty legislation, and she often tries to skate through tough confrontations with a smile, a wink or a cheery remark. After the brutal partisan treatment she received in last year's General Assembly session, she raved in a newsletter about what "an absolutely delightful experience" the whole thing had been. However -- and many Democrats believe this is her secret weapon -- voters often respond to politicians like Dalton who make no apologies for themselves or their agendas. "The things I put in are the things that people want," she said in an interview last week. "I don't mind running into brick walls. And I don't mind running into brick walls over and over again if it's the right thing to do." "People's first impression about Eddy is that here's an energetic lady who's happy and cheerful all the time," said Scott Gregory, Dalton's principal political adviser. "She really doesn't show her determination to win." "She's a mother hen when she has to be, but she's also a parliamentarian who has no fear about losing," added Richmond lawyer Richard Cullen, a longtime confidant. "She is not an airhead. She is a smart lady," said Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the only Democrat in the race for governor. "To underestimate her would be perilous." "She starts as the front-runner" in the lieutenant governor's race, said Falls Church auto dealer Donald S. Beyer Jr., one of two Democrats vying to take on Dalton this fall. State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw of Springfield is the other. Dalton's campaign for lieutenant governor is an open secret here in the state capital; she plans to declare her candidacy formally in mid-March, and is expected to face no opposition in the June 13 GOP primary. When she does announce, the corporate elite of Richmond and Northern Virginia -- many of them business associates or close friends of her late husband, John N. Dalton -- will spring into action with all the campaign contributions she could possibly want. The group includes developer John T. (Til) Hazel Jr., who roomed with John Dalton in 1954 when the two were preparing for the Virginia bar exam; Robert H. Patterson Jr., chairman of the large Richmond law firm Dalton joined after leaving the governor's office in 1982; and the chairmen of three financial giants -- CSX, Ethyl and Bassett Furniture corporations -- on whose boards of directors Dalton sat. Dalton, who died in 1986 after a long bout with cancer, is still very much a force in the political life of Eddy Dalton. In 1987, the Dalton name conferred on his widow near-instant credibility and recognition among voters at least as great as that of state Sen. William F. Parkerson Jr., whom she ultimately defeated at the polls. Today, even though many new voters have never heard of John Dalton, there is considerable evidence that the family name retains its luster. One recent poll, for instance, showed her much better known among voters statewide than either Beyer or Saslaw; on their home turf of Northern Virginia, she held a clear advantage over Beyer and was only one percentage point behind Saslaw. The poll by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Inc. also found large numbers of voters undecided about the lieutenant governor's race. John Dalton left his wife other legacies, including two political lessons, she said: "He taught me how run a modern campaign and he taught me never to hold a grudge." Even after the fate her legislative package suffered, "I have no bad feelings." Nor does she harbor any resentment about the death sentences the Democrat-controlled legislature has imposed on her bills this year, Dalton said. Of the eight major bills she introduced -- on issues ranging from videotape ratings to mandatory sentences for drug dealers -- seven have died and one is headed for oblivion, legislative leaders said. There has been one key difference about this session, though. Democrats have been noticeably less gleeful about savaging her bills, to the point where the Senate even let a couple of them cross over to the House of Delegates for consideration. The result has been an even more relaxed Dalton, who as lieutenant governor may one day wield the presiding officer's gavel over the same Senate that taught her how partisan a legislative body can be. "I feel like I'll be successful," she said of her coming campaign. "The Republican Party is going to surge."