RICHMOND -- Tea-leaf readers in the House of Delegates are wondering if Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry) might be considering retirement.

They base their hunch on some recent peculiar actions by the 71-year-old Philpott, the senior member of the General Assembly who has represented rural Henry County in the House since 1958.

Philpott is a staunch opponent of gun control -- witness that he cast the only negative vote in a 98 to 1 tally last week against expanding the instant background check of would-be gun purchasers to include all guns, a proposal that even the National Rifle Association favored. But this week, he turned around and abstained on a much more controversial proposal that could have required a three-day waiting period for gun purchasers.

And before the vote, Philpott, in a rare compliment from the podium, praised Del. Jean W. Cunningham (D-Richmond), who sponsored what the NRA calls the "three-day harassment period," for delivering "one of the best presentations on the floor in all my years in the House."

If that isn't puzzling enough, consider Philpott's unaccustomed fairness to minority Republicans this year. In filling vacancies on powerful committees created by the death of veteran Arlington Democratic Del. Warren G. Stambaugh, he bypassed senior Democrats and named Del. Jane H. Woods (R-Fairfax) to Finance and Del. Robert T. Andrews (R-McLean) to Courts of Justice.

Those actions, and several others, have been enough of a signal for some delegates to start talking about a possible successor. For years, it was expected that it would be a two-way contest between House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk) and Finance Chairman C. Richard Cranwell (D-Vinton). Now comes a boomlet for a possible compromise candidate in J. Samuel Glasscock (D-Suffolk).

Each would bring formidable credentials to the position, the most powerful in the assembly. The cunning Moss, 62, would likely be the favorite of the Old Guard; the articulate Cranwell, 48, is the leader of the Young Turks, and with Stambaugh forged a coalition of Northern and Southwestern lawmakers; the thoughtful Glasscock, 59, is considered "Mr. Integrity" in the House. All three are white male lawyers.

In a telling commentary on ethical standards, Glasscock is viewed as a pariah by some of his colleagues for his persistent support of more stringent conflict-of-interest regulations governing the conduct of legislators.

If Philpott could anoint a successor, it probably would be none of the above, but his friend Lewis W. Parker Jr., 62 (D-South Hill), an oil distributor.

Having said all this, the safest bet still is that, health permitting, Philpott will be back for a seventh two-year term as speaker.

In case you didn't notice, none of the contenders is from Northern Virginia -- Stambaugh was the region's best hope for a top leadership position -- and only Moss lives in the heavily populated eastern half of the state. A Sassy Remark

When Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Springfield), a vocal supporter of the death penalty, questioned a bill before the Courts of Justice Committee that would guarantee that two lawyers be appointed to represent indigent death-row inmates on post-sentencing appeals, Sen. Moody E. Stallings Jr. (D-Virginia Beach) replied that "I want to assure {Saslaw} that no fewer death sentences will result" from the proposal. "I know that's what he's concerned about," Stallings said.

Sen. Dudley J. "Buzz" Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt) added that "no one wants more death penalty cases" except Saslaw, whose view is "from another planet."

However, when it came time for the committee to vote on the measure, sponsored by Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Mount Vernon), Saslaw, the only current lawyer on the 15-member committee, announced, "The executioner from central Fairfax votes aye."

By the time the bill went before the full Senate a few days later, though, the "executioner" announced that he had had second thoughts about it, and voted against it. The bill passed anyway.

Meanwhile, the Senate passed two Saslaw-sponsored bills that would expand application of the death penalty. The Rest of the Story

A letter to the editor the other day from Linda J. Wright, of McLean, supporting a western regional bypass of the Washington area, identified her as president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which is correct as far as it went. What Wright failed to mention is that she is employed by the sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Charles L. Waddell (D-Loudoun) and helped write the bill she was boosting.

Mea Culpa Here Too

Mild-mannered Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington) bristled at a mention here last week that said she once tried to get the state to pay for a trip she made to Tasmania to exchange ideas with Australian legislators. She said she never would have made such an audacious request. She asked only for per diem expenses, she said, and she identified the "non-government source" that the story said paid for the air fare as "my husband."