IT LOOKED like a lesson in raw political power: In one afternoon, preacher-turned-presidential candidate M. G. (Pat) Robertson seemed to take over the Virginia Republican Party.

The scene was the GOP's annual meeting in Staunton in December. Robertson arrived with 1,100 fervent supporters, swept aside a band of party regulars and bulldozed his rivals in a presidential straw poll. With a crack organization and deep Virginia roots -- founder of a Tidewater-based television empire, son of a U. S. senator -- Robertson appeared to have his native state in thrall.

But unfortunately for Robertson, things aren't always the way they seem.

What Robertson proved in Staunton, just as he has demonstrated with strong showings in GOP caucuses from Michigan to Florida, is that he can give the Republican Party establishment ulcers. Robertson excels in contests that are won by packing a faithful crowd under a single roof. He knows how to fill pews.

But that's not the same as filling voting booths. Time after time, Virginia voters have proven that even in the home of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, old-time religion can't win elections.

Robertson himself has never campaigned before, but Christian conservatives have amassed a striking record of failure in Virginia. Their moral pronouncements have alienated traditional "country club" Republicans and scared off moderate swing voters. In fact, opinion polls and voting records suggest that Robertson and Falwell may be the two least liked public figures in the state. Some evidence:

Despite his "favorite son" status, Robertson does miserably in statewide polls. In an October survey for several Virginia news organizations, likely Republican voters gave Robertson a favorable rating of 19 percent and an unfavorable rating of 39 percent. A month earlier, Robertson was matched against former Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb in a hypothetical Senate race. Robertson lost four to one -- the worst showing of four potential GOP contenders.

"I've never seen a poll where (Robertson's) negatives are not higher than his positives," said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, which conducted the polls. "His 'unfavorable' recognition in polls we've done across the South is typically 35 to 45 percent among Republican voters. And these are people who are a step or two to the right of the voting public generally."

An endorsement from Falwell has become more a kiss of death than a badge of honor for Virginia politicians and causes. And Falwell-bashing has become one of the Democratic Party's favorite -- and most rewarding -- tactics.

When Falwell took to his pulpit and inveighed against a state lottery in November, lottery supporters distributed a flier quoting him and urging voters to "Say no to Falwell." The lottery passed in a landslide.

In 1985, Democrat Gerald L. Baliles aired a campaign commercial reminding voters that Falwell had endorsed Republican Wyatt B. Durrette Jr. for governor. "When you think of Wyatt Durrette," the ad said, "think of the people behind him." This time it was Baliles in a landslide.

The Democrats' most ingenious ploy came in the closing days of the 1981 gubernatorial race between Robb and GOP candidate J. Marshall Coleman. When Falwell told a hometown interviewer that he planned to vote a straight Republican ticket, Robb aides turned "the Falwell endorsement" (their words) into a statewide news story. David Doak, Robb's campaign manager, calls the "endorsement" a key factor in Robb's victory.

Early last year, Falwell threatened to move his Liberty University out of Virginia unless the state legislature forgave $1 million in back taxes owed by his organizations and approved a tax break worth $225,000 a year. A poll showed that even in Falwell's home town of Lynchburg, 54 percent of all voters opposed the concessions and only 34 percent approved. To get just part of what he wanted, Falwell had to pay the back taxes, hire high-powered lobbyists and mobilize the local Chamber of Commerce, which stressed material rather than spiritual concerns: Falwell is Lynchburg's third-largest employer.

In 1986, the state's hardest-fought election involved the U. S. House of Representatives seat in Robertson's home district, Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Republicans were in danger of losing a seat they had held for 18 years and threw everything they had into the race. Robertson, however, never lifted a finger. In fact, the GOP candidate never appeared with Robertson or so much as mentioned his name in public. Why? Internal campaign polls showed that even in his hometown Robertson alienated more voters than he attracted.

The state senator who has represented Falwell's hometown of Lynchburg for more than a decade, Elliot S. Schewel, is Democratic, Jewish and pro-abortion. In the late 1970s he defeated Harry Covert, a staff member of Falwell's Moral Majority. Covert beat out a longtime Republican activist for the party nomination. Enraged, local GOP leaders bolted and formed "Republicans for Schewel." Covert was trounced.

Twice, candidates supported by a coalition of Christian conservatives and New Right activists have run for lieutenant governor; twice, they have failed even to capture the GOP nomination. One of these candidates, direct-mail fundraiser Richard Viguerie, brought years of national political experience to his 1985 campaign. Virginia was unimpressed; Viguerie finished third in the GOP's field of five.

Fighting between the religious right and traditional "country club" conservatives has weakened party organizations in the state's two most populous and politically crucial areas, Northern Virginia and Tidewater. In the Norfolk-Virginia Beach district, religious activists elected Carl Bieber, the principal of a Christian school, as party chairman. Bieber's minister has called the Catholic Church "the mother of harlots." Since his election, his party has lost the Congressional seat it held for 18 years and the longtime Republican prosecutor in Virginia Beach has switched parties to become a Democrat.Northern Virginia voters have also purged many Republicans from their local goverments, with internal bickering contributing the factors involved in the loses.

The Robertson campaign has its own explanation for this dismal record: A team can't win without a coach. And until now, they say, the right coach hasn't come along.

"Pat has never been involved before," Ben Waldman, Robertson's press secretary, said at the Staunton meeting. Nodding toward the exultant throng of Robertson supporters, he said, "Look around you. I bet you 30 percent of these people are Democrats who never voted before. Most of these people have probably never been to a political rally in their life . . . We could carry Virginia very easily as a favorite son."

But Doak, the Democratic political consultant, said, "If you want to find out what's happening to the Republican Party nationally with Pat Robertson, all you have to do is look at the party in Virginia for the last eight years. Because the GOP has historically been a minority party, it has been more homogeneous than the Democrats. But the Republicans now have interest groups of their own, and they are pulling the party to the right. And they are driving away those swing voters who are not aligned with either party."

Two political scientists who have surveyed the attitudes of Republican contributors nationwide, John Green of the University of Akron and James Guth of Furman University, agree that Robertson is a disruptive influence. "There's great hostility toward Robertson outside his own little group of supporters," Green said. "Republicans as a group don't like the idea of ministers in politics . . . . The real threat perceived by many Republican activists is that Robertson will do well enough in a few places to embarrass the party nationally. Suddenly that image will be imprinted on them. He's regarded as a dangerous man."

The Virginia experience lends credence to these fears, and at the same time undercuts a key assumption of Robertson's campaign strategy. To prove he is a "legitimate" candidate, he has initially concentrated on intramural contests such as caucuses and straw polls, where the number of participants is relatively small. Robertson's polished oratory and moral appeals can transform a political meeting into a revival, and a few hundred of his recruits can suddenly seem like a conquering army.

But phase two of the campaign involves broadening Robertson's base and selling himself to the public at large. In Virginia, the public isn't buying. And prominent Republicans, even some who are sympathetic to Robertson, doubt they will.

"Pat's people -- man, they're dedicated," said Virginia Republican Chairman Donald W. Huffman, a friend of Robertson's since boyhood. "The last time I saw this kind of pandemonium in the Republican Party was in 1964, when we nominated Barry Goldwater. That's what brought me into the party. And we got our cans beaten. I think Pat is going to have a hard time enlarging his base. His people aren't all holy rollers and charismatics . . . but I think he's got a tough time convincing voters of that."

Virginia Sen. Paul S. Trible, who backs Kansas Sen. Robert Dole for president, said, "The challenge for Pat is to take the strength he has and turn it into support from the general public. There is no evidence so far that he has been able to do that."

Robertson will get one chance to silence the skeptics, and it won't be long in coming. Judgment Day, March 8, is at hand. On that "Super Tuesday," Virginia voters will join with others across the South and voice their presidential preferences in a primary election. Officially, the Virginia Republican primary is only window dressing. The party is holding a series of caucuses to select its delegates; the primary will be just another straw poll.

But this time, tens of thousands of Virginians will be voting, and the result will afford a more representative view of where Robertson stands with the homefolks. By his own admission, this is where Robertson must prove himself. The caucuses can bring him delegates and make him a power broker, but the primary could make him a winner. Robertson told supporters in Staunton that he needs to "win Virginia, and win it by a majority."

History, and the smart money, augur against him. After the December cheers of Staunton, Robertson faces an uncertain spring.

Kent Jenkins is a Washington Post Staff Writer.