THERE COMES A time in many political campaigns when the heat of battle -- or chill of apathy, whichever comes later -- prompts some of the candidates or their supporters to get nasty. That time in Virginia seems to be now. While those red-white-and-blue-with-musical-bunting TV spots aren't too bad so far, a few of the quips on the stump qualify as certified cheap shots. Most voters can spot these, but that doesn't always stop the flow. And sometimes it's difficult to know who's behind certain smears along the campaign trail and whether it isn't just the unauthorized work of overzealous supporters.

At the College of William and Mary, for example, the College Republicans distributed a flyer that listed a fictitious "Communists for Baliles" organization. The campus Young Democrats were not amused -- nor, as it developed, was the campaign organization of Wyatt Durrette, the Republican opponent of Gerald Baliles for governor. "It was just a little college fun," said the president of the College Republicans, whose sense of humor clearly equals his sense of politics.

Even less funny -- because it came from an elected official -- was the introduction of Republican attorney general candidate W. R. (Buster) O'Brien by state Del. George P. Beard Jr. of Culpeper. Referring to Mr. O'Brien's Democratic opponent, Del. Mary Sue Terry, Mr. Beard said Mr. O'Brien "knows more about criminal law in his little finger than his opponent knows in all five of her ringless fingers." Mr. Beard has since said, "I was trying to be funny. I wished I'd never said it." Here again, members of the Republican ticket did call this remark "unfortunate."

Example No. 3 comes from John H. Chichester, Republican candidate for lieutentant governor, who has been using a new campaign flyer directly trying to depict his Democratic opponent, L. Douglas Wilder, as being opposed to protecting battered wives. Under a bold print headline, "Chichester Stands for Values Virginians Cherish," this listing of the two candidates' stands on issues shows Mr. Wilder on the "no" side of providing "protections for battered wives." This is the same stuff raised earlier by the Republican National Committee in ads that the Richmond Times-Dispatch declined to run on the advice of counsel.

Supporters of Mr. Wilder point out that their candidate did vote against one bill that would have allowed magistrates power to remove abusive spouses from their homes; his reason was that he considered the bill legally flawed. But they note that Mr. Wilder voted for a bill that broadened judicial authorities' rights to remove abusive spouses from their homes -- while Mr. Chichester voted against 1980 legislation that would have improved coordinated services for abused spouses.