IN THE campaign for the U.S. Senate seat in Virginia, there is an important choice to be made between Richard J. Davis and Paul S. Trible Jr. -- two knowledgeable and competent men whose formal positions on most issues are not nearly so divergent as their ads would have you believe. That, after all, is the political tradition in Virginia, where the successful seekers of statewide support are not political boat-rockers with great national agendas, but those who are best equipped to look after the people and interests of the state in a steady manner. On this score, Mr. Davis is the better choice.

His experience and understanding have won him respect and popularity among the disparate factions of his own Democratic Party. They see Mr. Davis as someone who can be depended on to reflect a reliable and fair consensus on matters of interest to Virginians of all stripes.

Mr. Trible, of course, has been in Congress, though on close inspection any claims of extraordinary contributions to the legislative process in Washington become difficult to substantiate. He offers himself as a "stay-the-course, mainstream, conservative Republican," while Mr. Davis is calling for a "mid-course correction while keeping the same direction." So what is more "conservative"?

More important, we think, is the solid experience of Mr. Davis as a businessman for 30 years, as mayor of Portsmouth and now as lieutenant governor. His record on racial questions and his sympathy for minority concerns are especially important. His sense of the relationship of federal, state and local governments would serve him well. And if Mr. Davis' approach to national security issues lacks sophistication after a long career in state politics, there is no reason to believe that he cannot come up to speed.

Mr. Davis has demonstrated a capacity to reconcile the interests of those who have for too long been overlooked in the politics of the Old Dominion with those who share a stake in a stable economy. That is an attractive prospect, and it argues for his election.