In public Henry Evans Howell Jr. is a flamboyant, sometimes fiery politician whose persistent flights with "the big boys" of Virginia have transformed him into something of a folk hero.

In private, he's a moody, mercurial man who sees himself as a symbol of change - change he believes he alone can bring to Virginia.

Now silver-haired and 56, Howell is running for governor of Virginia for the third time. He is campaigning on a "Populist Platform for Virginia," mentioning the name of his friend Jimmy Carter, recounting his victories as one of Virginia's first legal activists and consumer advocates, and asking for the opportunity to finish the job.

In the June 14 Democratic primary Howell faces Andrew P. Miller, who is running one of the best financed and best organized campaigns Virginia has seen.

Miller, who portrays himself as more conservative than Howell, is the son of Francis P. Miller, whose fight against the Byrd Organization 28 years ago lured Howell into Virginia politics.

There are issues in the current race, to be sure, but as in Howell's previous campaigns, they have almost been overwhelmed by the Norfolk lawyer's personality.

His folksy manner of speaking leaves few listeners neutral.

On the danger of spending inadequate money on television commercials, he says, "It's the old butterbean story again. If it takes a thousand butterbeans to make the water flow over the bathtub, there's no use dropping in four. All you do is waste four perfectly good butterbeans."

On his bedroom, he says, "Remember that I'm the only candidate that sleeps in a bed the President slept in. Jimmy Carter spent the night with us in 1975 and we're so proud of that fact. We've been married 28 years and it's been a good bed and a good bedroom, but it's even better since Jimmy Carter slept there."

And on his first job, he says, "When you are a 15-cent-an-hour water boy, you learn three things. First, you learn the value of a nickel. Second, you learn to look for another job, and third, you make sure you have some effective voice to see you are paid fairly."

Howell, himself, has become an issue in the campaign. He is admired. "He's a real honest-to-god populist," says State Sen. Clive L. Duval of McLean, his Northern Virginia coordinator.) And he is despised. ("In my opinion Henry Howell is nothing more than a two-bit political opportunist who doesn't deserve to be elected to anything, particularly governor of Virginia," said Rodney Smith, editor of the Altavista Gazette, a Southside Virginia weekly newspaper.)

No politican in the memory of most Virginians has gone through as many grueling campaigns as Howell has. After each of his defeats for governor the Norfolk labor lawyer has bounced back. "I really don't think you can underestimate Henry," cautioned State Del. Bernard G. Barrow, a Virginia Beach Democrat, who gives Howell high marks as a campaigner.

In the past, Howell has managed to put together a traditional Democratic coalition - labor, blacks, urban and rural poor, and liberals. It is a powerful coalition, but in Virginia it was enough to elect Howell, only once, when he ran as an independent in a three-way race for lieutenant governor in 1971.

Howell is, as his Norfolk law partner and former campaign manager Robert A. Brown, puts it: "different." Howell, Brown said, "talks in terms of being a symbol - and he believes that. He genuinely believes that he is an instrument for change at the right place and the right time."

Norfolk lawyer Frederick T. Stant says, "He feels that he is the only one who would not be likely to succumb to pressure from the strength of the state, but that, I mean big business."

His still-quoted 1969 slogan, "Keep the Big Boys Honest," reflected his frequent appearances before the State Corporation Commission and in the courts fighting big insurance companies, big utilities, and big insensitive government bureaucracies in Richmond.

Howell's major accomplishments came not in the General Assembly, where he served in both the House and Senate, but in the courts and before the State Corporation Commission, the agency that regulates utilities, banks and insurance rates in Virginia. In the courts Howell was active in cases that led to the abolition of the poll tax as a requirement for voting, more representation for urban areas in the state legislature and in the House of Representatives, and a case that blocked then-Democratic Gov. Mills E. Godwin from withholding federal "impact aid" from areas with large military installations.

Before the SCC, Howell did not win often, but his frequent appearances and his spirited clashes with the SCC and Virginia Electric and Power Co. (which Howell calls "the very expensive power company.") built his reputation as a consumer advocate in days when no state agency was charged with the responsibility for representing consumers before the SCC.

These appearances turned Howell from a little-known Norfolk state senator into a major political figure with a statewide constitutency. But it also alarmed businessman and the state's political establishment and insured Howell's opponents of sizeable business contributions and almost overwhelming support from the state's officialdom.

To have compromised with his opponents could have brought Howell both wealth and honor, law partner Brown said. "If he had gone along and gotten along, he would have been governor long ago," Brown said.

"If the (Howell) had chosen to go in another direction . . . to work in polite politics . . . then he would have had no problem," agreed Robert Mason, who has watched Howell's career as editor of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. Howell laughs at the thought of such an accommodation. "I mean there was no chance," he said the other day. "There wouldn't be any need for me to be governor if I had gone in partnership with them."

One legislator who served with Howell in the 1960's recalls Howell fretting aloud about how the political establishment viewed him in those days - a "a rinky dink" to use Howell's description. "Do you think a rinky-dink can ever be elected governor?" Howell asked his friend.

Convinced that his support is strong among Democratic Party voters and crippled by a lack of funds, Howell has run this year what some see as a less frenetic race than he ran in 1969 and 1973. His appearances seem less frequent than in his race against Republican Mills E. Godwin. He lost to Godwin by a mere 7-tenths of 1 per cent four years ago after Godwin portrayed Howell as an advocate of school busing. Howell denied the charge but was unable to counter extensive last minute television advertising featuring the allegation.

His 1977 campaign is geared to bringing out voters that Howell aides are convinced are already committed to Howell. Much of his campaign's limited financial resources have been devoted to locating these voters through a series of sophisticated telephone bank operations in major urban areas.

Until he personally attacked Miller as unqualified ("He just don't have it." Howell said among other charges), the former lieutenant governor seemed to be deliberately avoiding issues that might enrage the Miller supporters. Early in the campaign Howell issued what he called "the most specific platform ever" and said it would be the foundation of his race.

The 13-page, 12-plant doucment puts heavy stress on consumer issues. It calls for a return to 10-cent pay telephone calls, increased support for transportation in Northern Virginia, greater citizen participation in government, regional governor's offices, and giving citizens the right of initiative, which means they could petition to have measures put on the ballot.

While he has frequently adovated various tax proposals in the past, Howell is now flatly opposed to any "general tax increase" and has promised he will veto any such measure approved by the legislature during the next four years.

This year Howell has dropped a key 1973 pledge, to seek removal of the state's three per cent tax on food. He still wangs the tax removed from nonprescirption drugs and claims as governor he can, by executive directive, allow collective bargaining for state workers, a step Miller strongly opposes.

But pressed for specifies of his plan to grant more home rule to Virginia's 130 local governments. Howell said he was unable to respond. "It would be foolish for me. Henry Howell, out of office three years, to sit here today and definitively say this, this, this, and this . . .," he said. Specifics of the plan will be developed this summer after the primary, he said.

On the campaign trail, Howell revels in his role as a legal and consumer activist, fighting utility and insurance rate increases."I think what I've done - without tooting my own horn - is almost unbelievable," he said in Norfolk recently. "In Virginia, I've done more in insurance and utilities than Ralph Nader had done in other fields. Ralph Nader hasn't touched this . . . He says it's too complicated and takes too much staff to take on this type of problem," he said.

In private, Howell can be a stubborn and bitter man, difficult to argue with and angry with those who support his opponent, some of his former supporters claim. "I thought he was a man of the people," said Meyera Obendorf, a Virginia Beach City Councilwoman who supported Howell in 1973 and has left him this year for Miller. "He gets angry with those people who have left him and he pushes them away," she said.

Literally that's what Howell did to several former backers at a recent 2nd Congressional District Unity night reception, ripping stick-on campaign badges for a Virginia Beach candidate off the clothes of some of those at the party Howell thought the candidate had turned against him.

Howell, the son of a lumber salesman, is a product of the port city of Norfolk. He was born there received his two years of college there and has practiced law in the downtown area since he graduated from the University of Virginia Law School.

He is not a wealthy man. In a detailed financial statement filed this April with state officials, Howell's assets are virtually the same assets as he listed in his 1973 race. He refuses to release a total figure for his holdings.

Ironically, his most valuable single asset, besides his two-story, white clapboard home in Norfolk appears to be 1,020 shares of First Virginia Corp., a major state bank holding company - a favorite target of candidate Howell. The stock is currently worth about $6,500 and Howell says that he would have bought more stock if he had had the money.