Henry E. Howell Jr., 76, a populist and political maverick who lost three elections for governor of Virginia but rattled the state's governmental and business hierarchy in the process, died yesterday of cancer at his home in Norfolk.

Howell, a former lieutenant governor and legislator who ran for governor in 1969, 1973 and 1977, made a career of doing battle with the rich and the politically powerful, and the image he cultivated was that of "the people's candidate," whose mission was to "keep the big boys honest."

It was his life's ambition to be governor. A sometime Democrat, he was a superb orator who stumped the state from the coalfields of Appalachia to the factories of Tidewater in quest of the office. He regularly challenged insurance and utility rate increases. He took part in lawsuits that did away with Virginia's poll tax and helped bring about legislative redistricting on a one-man, one-vote basis. He championed the cause of organized labor in a state that was one of the first to enact a right-to-work law.

Howell had an enthusiastic and vocal following that ranged across the population spectrum to include urban blacks, suburban housewives, blue-collar whites and liberal college professors, but he nevertheless remained something of a political anomaly in Virginia. His freewheeling style was out of sync with the state's patrician political tradition, and his brand of populism tended to make many voters uneasy.

He got his start in politics by campaigning in his home town of Norfolk in 1949 against candidates supported by the political organization headed by Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Flood Byrd Sr. that dominated Virginia politics at the time. He was paid back, he said, by being "blackballed by the Kiwanis and Rotarians."

During the late 1950s, he opposed Virginia's officially sanctioned policy of Massive Resistance to school desegregation, and in 1956 and 1957, he was a leader in the fight to reopen Norfolk's public schools, which had been closed in the face of pressure to desegregate.

As much as anything, Howell's career reflected the changing patterns of Virginia politics. His election as lieutenant governor in 1971 -- when he ran as an independent to complete the term of J. Sargeant Reynolds, who died that year -- would have been unthinkable during the era of the Byrd organization. It was described in newspaper editorials as a final indicator that little more was to be gained from the race issue that had figured so prominently in the state's politics during the era of Massive Resistance.

Born in Norfolk, Howell graduated from the Norfolk division of the College of William and Mary, now Old Dominion University, and from the University of Virginia law school.

He ran for the House of Delegates in 1953 and lost, then ran again in 1959 and won. He lost in 1961 and won in 1963. He then was elected to the Virginia Senate, where he served from 1966 to 1971.

Howell ran for governor in 1969, losing to William C. Battle by less than 20,000 votes in a Democratic primary runoff after Mills E. Godwin, the outgoing Democratic governor, had helped swing conservative votes to Battle. Belatedly and without enthusiasm, Howell announced that he would support Battle in the general election, but he told his supporters they were "free spirits" who could vote as they pleased.

When the results were in, Linwood Holton was Virginia's first Republican governor of the 20th century, and most political analysts felt that Howell had helped him win the election.

When it appeared after Lt. Gov. Reynolds's death in 1971 that the Democrats might call a convention to nominate a replacement, Howell, who feared a convention might be stacked against him, announced that he would seek the nomination as an independent. The Democratic Party, he said, "had slammed the door" in his face.

Howell's loss as an independent in the 1973 gubernatorial race to Godwin illustrated the unraveling of Virginia's traditional political party alignments. Godwin, the former Democratic governor, won as a Republican, having found the Democratic party too liberal. The Democrats did not have a candidate for governor in that year.

For Howell, that election was as close to the governor's mansion as he would ever get. He lost by a margin of 1.4 percentage points out of 1 million votes cast.

Four years later, Howell, running as a Democrat, was overwhelmed by Republican John N. Dalton.

He had toned down his rhetoric by that election, but he remained anathema to most of the state's business community, and he could not shed the "Howlin' Henry" image he had acquired early in his political career. A few days after the election, Howell announced that he never again would seek statewide political office.

Returning to his Norfolk law practice, Howell became increasingly alienated from Virginia's Democratic Party, and in 1980, he called on his supporters to desert it, attacking its leaders for "taking stands on nothing and offending no one."

In 1981, when Charles S. Robb recaptured the governorship for the Democrats after a 12-year hiatus, Howell's status as a political pariah could hardly have been more pronounced. He stayed away from the campaign, largely because Robb's supporters feared his endorsement might hurt Robb among conservative voters. Howell is survived by his wife, the former Elizabeth McCarty; and by three children, Henry E. Howell III of Virginia Beach, Mary Elizabeth Howell of Norfolk and Susan Harrison of Portsmouth, Va.; and three grandchildren. CAPTION: Henry E. Howell Jr. became lieutenant governor in 1971. CAPTION: Howell, right, chats with Mills E. Godwin in 1973. Running as an independent, he lost the race for governor that year to Godwin, a Democrat turned Republican.