ONCE AGAIN party labels tell little about the candidates for statewide office in Virginia. For the differences in their personal styles and policy positions, you must examine them close up. You must do so, moreover, knowing that in the election Tuesday what is involved is not only a contest for office in the coming fours years but also, in both major parties, a jockeying for position to lead the ticket the next time around.

Those who have been dissatisfied with Gov. Mills Godwin's old-line approaches to people and programs will find little comfort in the gubernatorial candidacy of his fellow Republican, John Dalton. And those who are looking for a modest change, a measured departure from the conservative tradition of tight state control over localities, may find Democrat Henry Howell somewhat erratic in his exuberant calls for change. Still, Mr. Howell is by no means the reckless spender or fringe liberal of his opponent's campaign charges. He insists he wishes to prevent a tax increase and would veto any general increase in the sales or income tax passed by the General Assembly. For the revenues needed to prevent program cuts, he counts on an improvement in the national economy.

One significant difference between the two candidates, in our view, has to do with home rule - how much autonomy Virginia's cities and counties should have. As it archaically stands, local governments may take only those kinds of actions specifically permitted by the Assembly. Mr. Howell favors a constitutional amendment that would permit cities and counties to pass any law, subject to approval of local voters in a referendum, that is not specifically disapproved by a vote of two-thirds of each house in the Assembly. Mr. Dalton opposes this sound measure, claiming it would create too many disparities across the state.

One public-utility questions, both candidates, after some wobbling about, now generally want the governor's office to be more active in monitoring utility practices - thought there is nothing anywhere to indicate that consumers' bills are going to stay down in the face of steadily rising fuel costs. Both candidates want the state to require the Virginia Electric and Power Co. to guarantee a minimum productivity at nuclear power plants, where breakdowns increase electric bills. In addition, and not without shifting his views a bit, Mr. Howell has made consumer advocacy and opposition to electric rate increases a major theme. Early last month, Mr. Dalton adjusted his position, too, to one similar to Mr. Howell's.

Aside from these comparisons, the choice basically depends on your sense of how representative the state government should be. On that score, Mr. Dalton's campaign indicates that if he is elected there would be little change in Richmond's tight and rather narrow control of the localities. Mr. Howell, who long ago began advocating a more representative state government, sensitive to the problems of the less favored people of Virginia, at least offers the possibility of a constructive departure from the unimaginative management that has controlled the state for so long.

In the races for lieutenant governor and attorney general, attention should be directed not just to the candidate's abilities to handle these jobs, but also to their potential as future governors. After all, there's no point in dwelling on the abilities of either Democrat Charles S. Robb or Republican A. Joseph Canada to discharge the duties of lieutenant governor, since almost anyone could. But voters should be weighing the political inexperience and amiable but uninspiring moderation of Mr. Robb against the ultra-rightwing fervor of much of Mr. Canada's campaign. The highlights - his flip-flopping on the Equal Rights Amendment and a preoccupation with the Panama Canal treaties - hardly make him an impressive prospect for future state leadership.

For attorney general, the Democratic "rainbow" ticket offers Edward Lane, who has tried to be a loyal team candidate but whose record as a hard-core segregationist in the days of massive resistance and as an opponent of a state fair-housing law in the 1970s separates him from his running mates. As a veteran of 24 years in the House of Delegates, Mr. Lane offers voters a chance to advance an experienced, go-along-to-get-along politician. Republican J. Marshall Coleman, in contrast, has captured impressive biracial support as a moderate Republican of the Linwood Holton school. If elected, Mr. Coleman would be in a strong position to lead his party in future years.

In sum, each contest offers a different kind of choice - and in each contest the factors of party, policy and personality are also muddled in a complicating way. Voters may have to split their tickets more than usual to arrive at the threesome they find most congenial. Indeed, we would encourage Virginians to exercise this kind of pointed judgment. Since both parties have produced tickets that vary so much in viewpoint and ability, the voters will have to do the sorting out and, in the process, to decide which old ways and which new approaches they want to install in Richmond for the next four years - or more.