Members of the Norfolk and Chesapeake city police unions, part of Henry E. Howell's natural political base, gathered here last night to hear a speech by the Democratic Virginia gubernatorial candidate.

Since the two unions have a total membership of 437, Norfolk union president Carl Lee anticipated a big turnout. He reserved a room at a Holiday Inn with 204 seats and set up four large coffee urns and three large trays of pastries. A total of 10 police officers showed.

A forlorn Howell told Lee he need not bother to set up a microphone and then, looking out over the tiny gathering said: "I asked Carl why we didn't have more law enforcement officers, here. He had 21 good reasons . . ." and then the candidate's voice trailed off.

The meager turnout was a compaign disaster and another piece of evidence to support reports by neutral political figures and even old Howell friends that the former lieutenant governor is in serious trouble in his home town of Norfolk, Virginia's largest city, and in neighboring Virginia Beach.

Big victories in Norfolk have been an essential part of Howell's strength in past races and some experienced campaign officials believe he must win more than 60 per cent of the vote this year to have any chance of beating his June 14 primary opponent, former Attorney General Andrew P. Miller.

While narrowly losing races for governor in 1973 and for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1969, Howell carried Norfolk by margins of about 2 to 1. His margins in Virginia Beach have always been smaller, but in 1973 he defeated Gov. Mills E. Godwin there with a surprising 53.2 per cent.

The Miller campaign is confident of a comfortable margin in Virginia Beach, whose voters are growing increasingly conservative as it takes on more and more of the character of an affluent suburb.

In four statewide races, Norfolk alone has given Howell from 6.7 to 11 Norfolk is considered all the more important this year because Miller's seven-year residency in the Richmond suburbs is expected to add to his margin in that area, always one of the worst for Howell.

Almost everything that has happened in the campaign so far points to the likelihood of deep Miller inroads in Norfolk and indicates fading support for Howell.

Howell's almost total lack of support within the big Democratic majority in the General Assembly is dramatized in Norfolk by the fact that only one of the city's seven members of the House of Delegates is expected to endorse him.

He is William P. Robinson, the House's only black member and a close Howell ally in politics and civic rights battles. The other six, all old friends of Howell, are remaining neutral, and some speak openly of Howell's political decline in their city.

"Henry seems to have lost that evangelical fervor that he has to have," Del. Joseph A. Leafe said in an interview. "The issues he raises are the issues of 10 years ago."

Leafe said Howell's rhetoric against the old Byrd Organization, for civil rights and against high utility and insurance rates used to bring Norfolk audienes to their feet cheering him. "Now Henry gets polite applause, just like any run-of-the-mill politican," Leafe said.

Some of Howell's closet supporters in the past have defected to Miller this year. Some of these defections have resulted from bitter clashes with the sometimes volatile Howell and the desertions to Miller have increased hostility between Howell and these old supporters.

At a Second Congressional District Democratic "unity" party on the Norfolk-Virginia Beach border last Friday, Del. Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk) said Howell angrily brushed him aside when he started to introduce a guest to the candidate. Moss said Howell bitterly complained of the six Norfolk delegates' refusal to endorse him.

Virginia Beach city council member Meyeran Obendorf, an old Howell supporter now working for Miller, said Howell angrily confronted her at the party and asked, "How could you do this?"

Former Norfolk Democratic chairman Barbara Hickey, anothe former Howell backer now working for Miller, said Howell came up to her and one other person at the party and tore off paste-on campaign patches they were wearing in support of Virginia Beach Commonwealth's Attorney candidate Timothy W. Finchem, and said, "Finchem is a loser."

Finchem is second vice chairman of the state party and was campaign director for the defeated Democratic U.S. Senate candidate last November, Elmo R. Zumwalt. Howell said the day after the party that he had written a letter to President Carter at Finchem's request recommending him for consideration as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Howell said Finchem soon after decide dto run for office in Virginia Beach without consulting him.

Hickey is one of five Norfolk campaign comanagers for Miller and not the only one who once was close to Howell. The group also includes Howell's administrative assistant when he was lieutenant governor from 1971-1974.

Copeland is one of the many Norfolk Democrats who clashed with Howell when he tried vainly to put through a slate of Carter delegates in April, 1976, when most Norfolk Democratic leaders wanted to remain uncommitted in the presidential nominating process then going on.

Howell's problems in his home political base clearly run deeper than relations with political figures. In last year's elections for three Norfolk City Council seats, two conservative candidates defeated two liberals who were closely associated with Howell and his wife, Elizabeth M. Howell, a member of the council.

The conservatives' margin of victory was overwhelming and the two top managers for the winners are now serving as comangers for Miller's Norfolk campaign.

The affluent, white voters who live in neighborhoods near the Elizabeth River on Norfolk's west side are expected to vote overwhelmingly for Miller.

Howell lives in one of these neighborhoods, but never has been politically popular there. He has almost never won his own precinct, although he succeeded in defeating Godwin there in 1973.

These voters generally are conservative, but Miller also is attracting strong support from upper class liberals. At a party in the fashionable Ghent neighborhood last Wednesday night, about 150 Miller supporters turned out in a driving rain, including some who worked in the 1972 presidential campaign of Sen. George McGoven.

Norfolk's black vote, potentially about 40 per cent of the total, is considered safe for Howell, but there is some doubt over the size of the turnout. Norfolk's black political leadership was among those who wanted most to avoid a primary battle that would force party regulars to choose between Howell, a longtime supporter of black rights, and Miller, a recognized leader of a new generation of Virginia Democrats.

"It shouldn't have happened this way," Robinson said in an interview.

Another black political figure supporting Howell said he fears that blacks will not turn out in large numbers. "Always before, Henry has had an opponent that presented a clear choice for blacks," he said. "It's not that way this time and some of us may not want to choose."

The focus of the Miller effort in the city is on the neighborhoods of modest frame homes in Norfolk's north and east sides. it is this predominantly white area of blue collar workers and Navy retirees that provides the swing vote in Norfolk.

The basically conservative voters here often have backed Howell, attracted to his populist style, but also have voted heavily for Virginia's conservative Independent Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. They made a major contribution to the election of the council conservatives last year.

In what may be one of the decisive battles of the primary campaign. Miller's well-organized precinct forces plan to invade these neighborhoods soon in what Hickey calls a "canvassing blitz."

"Andy did well in these precincts in his attorney general races and we expect him to do very well this time," she said.

If they do succeed in winning these precincts for Miller, Hickey and Miller's other Norfolk managers believe they will have succeeded in denying Howell the hometown margin he needs to have a chance for a statewide victory.