Henry E. Howell began his campaign against Republican John N. Dalton for governor of Virginia yesterday with the prospect of help from his old friend Jimmy Carter and the unknown appeal of a philosophically diverse Democratic ticket.

Howell, a liberal populist, will be joined on the Democratic ballot Nov. 8 by a conservative candidate for attorney general, Edward E. Lane, and moderate political newcomer Charles S. Robb. Robb, son-in-law of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson was nominated Tuesday for lieutenant governor. It is possible that both Lady Bird Johnson and President Carter will campaign for the ticket this fall.

A White House spokesman said that Carter's role in the campaign in Virginia, where Carter narrowly lost in 1976, remains "an open question." But, a Howell spokesman said, "We feel the White House will be felt in this campaign."

Other Democratic political figures said yesterday that one problem that may require White House aid is defections to Dalton by voters who were hoping former Attorney general Andrew P. Miller would win Tuesday's Democratic primary.

A survey by The Washington Post of 1,700 persons who cast ballots at 21 precincts throughout the state found that two out of five primary voters might vote for Dalton in a race against Howell.

One out of five said they would vote for the Republican candidate if Howell were the Democratic nominee. Another one out of five said they were not sure who they would vote for.

Of the Miller voters, only one out of five said they would vote for Howell against Dalton. Half said they would vote for Dalton and one out of five said they were undecided.

Howell campaign manager Psul Goldman acknowledged in an interview that a "factor" in the general election campaign will be the need to overcome the adverse image that some voters have of Howell because of his controversial role in the state government and Democratic politics for almost 30 years.

Throughout that period Howell fought to wean the Virginia Democratic Party from the conservative philosohpies of the old Democratic organization fashioned by the late Gov. and Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. In the process he alienated many members of the moderate-conservative majority in Virginia who once provided the main strength of the state Democratic Party.

Miller's campaign was pitched toward bringing that conservative bloc back into a new, moderate coalition, but Howell was victorious with 253,716 votes, or 51.6 per cent, compared with 240,104, or 48.4 per cent, for Miller.

Robb won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor with 39 per cent of the votes in a three-way race, and Lane collected 35 per cent of the votes to win the Democratic nomination for attorney general in a four-way race. Republicans nominated state Sen. A. Joe Canada of Virginia Beach for lieutenant governor and state Sen. J. Marshall Coleman of Staunton for attorney general at a convention June 4.

Many Democratic Party officials around the state expressed fears yesterday that some Virginia Democrats will not back the party's ticket this fall.

State Democratic Party Chairman Joseph T. Fitzpatrick, in Richmond to arrange a Saturday "unity" meeting of Tuesday's winners and losers, was blunt: "I think I'm able to guage the anti-Howell sentiment in the party pretty well," he said. "And I think it's going to take alot of talking just to hold the defections to a bare minimum."

Republicans were already predicting massive defections of Miller supporters to Dalton. The Republican candidate himself yesterday morning ticked off the names of three Miller financial supporters who had already promised him their support. Dalton said these supporters are O. V. Jarrell, a truck-stop operator; T. Marshall Hahn, an executive of Georgia-Pacific Corp., and a political action committee of the Union-Camp Corp., a paper products manufacturer.

There were other troublesome signs within the Democratic Party ranks. Miller will not attend Saturday's unity meeting, planned since March 6, because, an aide announced, "he'Ll be on vacation."

The Miller staff, touted as one of the best organized political operations in the state, met privately with Miller at the state headquarters yesterday, but no consensus emerged from the meeting, according to Blaine Carter, the chief fund-raiser on the Miller staff. "Right now I think our supporters - and everybody on the staff - is still in a state of shock," Carter said.

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[WORD ILLEGIBLE] money (that Miller [WORD ILLEGIBLE] in the general election) is going to go to Dalton, no doubt about it," Carter said. "Some might go to Henry . . . (but) I'm sure a lot of it is going to go to Dalton."

Yesterday the members of the ticket were all professing unity. "I've always run as a Democrat and I will play on the team," Lane said. "We will campaign together."

However, he added: "I won't change my philosophy, and my philosophy is pretty well known."

Both liberals and conservatives yesterday spoke of the difficulty many Virginia Democrats would have in supporting a ticket that, as Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault of Fairfax County noted, includes candidates who are "poles apart" in their political philosophies. "I think that the first job that the Democrats have is to get this divergent slate together," Brault said.

On the left, liberal Fairfax State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan said he was looking somewhat apprehensively at Lane. On the right, conservative Del. Alson H. Smith of Wichester said he was looking at Howell with equal misgivings.

"I'm going to have to get some word from these candidates themselves as to how the obvious differences between Henry Howell and Ed Lane, for example, are going to be solved," Gartlan said. "I'm going to support them as far as I can."

Smith, a Miller fund-raiser, refused to get behind the ticket. "We've just got to wait and let the dust settle," he said. "I've heard it said that the best thing to do after a primary is not to talk to anyone."

But Fitzpatrick and other party leaders were anxiously calling for a "dialogue between Howell and Miller in the coming weeks "and worrying about defections from the party. "I've got that uneasy feeling in the back of my neck that it's going to take a lot of talking in the next few weeks," said Fitzpatrick, who managed Howell's first race for governor in 1969.

Democratic leaders disagreed over the impact Howell's friendship with President Carter and the visit of Carter's eldest son, Jack, to the state in the final week of the campaign. Brault said, "it had to be a factor" in Howell's victory and added "I think that is also will be factor in electing him in November."

The potential for defections to Dalton was one of the most striking findings of The Washington Post poll. But the survey, conducted by the Post's editor for polling, Barry Sussman, also produced a number of other insights into the nature of a Democratic primary electorate in Virginia.

House Majroity Leader James M. Thomson and Fitzpatrick however, disputed the value of Carter's influence. In any event, Howell already has benefited from his relationship to the President, Thomson said. "It would be a mistake to dwell on it" in the general election, he said.

Dalton campaign manager William A. Royall said yesterday that he, too, believes Carter's impact on Virginia is uncertain. "Really you can't measure his transfer power with respect to Henry - because Henry is something we don't understand," Royall said.

However, Royall said he had no doubt that Carter's "chief advantage will be with fund-raising, with arm-twisting, helping with union leaders" for Howell.

Howell's two chief staff operatives, campaign manager Goldman and executive director William Rosendahl, said yesterday they hope to tap a galaxy of prominent national and Southern Democrats who will come to the state to campaign for Howell. In addition Rosendahl said he hopes to gain White House and Democratic National Committee help in raising "a barebones budget of $800,000" for the fall.

He said he has already spoken to a number of international union officials about donations and was encouraged by their comments.

In sharp contract to the Miller organization, which already had mapped out extensive plans for the summer and fall campaigns, Howell's surprise victory caught his staff with only a rough scheme of what they will attempt to do. Goldman, for instance, acknowledged that there had been disagreements between Howell and himself and said he didn't know if he would remain with the staff. "Henry hasn't said" what Goldman's job will be with the campaign, the campaign manager said.

Rosendahl said much of the fall effort will be directed toward a voter registration drive and developing Howell's image as a fiscally conservative candidate. "Henry's weak point is his image," Goldman said.

But Rosendahl claimed Howell, by adopting a strong position against a tax increase, and during the primary campaign already begun to change the public's perception of Howell from that of liberal to that of "a majority populist."

"The Democrats have to look at their hearts," Goldman said. "It's clear where the mainstream of the Virginia Democratic Party is and Henry is there - not out on the fringe."

Many of the poll results portrayed an election pitting the champion of the party's left wing, Howell, against the champion of the right wing, Miller. Howell had a clear edge among those who voted for Carter last November and Miller was favored by those who voted fro Gerald Ford.

These results and the fact that Miller did better among voters who were more affluent and better educated (as Republican candidates do in national elections) helped make the Democratic primary look very much like a contest between a Democrat and a Republican.

About one-fourth of those surveyed Tuesday identified themselves as liberals, and of that number two out of three said they cast ballots for Howell. More than half said they were moderates and that group split evenly between the candidates. About one-fourth described themselves as conservatives, and six out of 10 votes in that group went to Miller.

The conservative voters for Howell included blacks, who voted overwhelming for him, and voters from his Tidewater home base.

On the average, those surveyed placed themselves at the middle of a liberal-to-conservative ideological spectrum - at 4.9 on a scale of 1 to 9. On the average, they classified Howell as lsightly more liberal - 3.9 on the scale - and Miller as slightly more conservative - 5.5.

The survey results showed that efforts by the Miller campaign to make inroads into Howell's strength among black voters failed.

Nine out of 10 black voters surveyed cast ballots for Howell. His support among blacks in urban areas of the lower James River basin - from Richmond and Petersburg on the west to Newport News and Norfolk in the east - was about 95 per cent. Miller did a little better among black voters in the small cities and rural areas of central Virginia, but Howell received more than eight out of 10 black votes there, also.

There also appeared to be a clear correlation between attitudes on racial issues and preference for Howell and Miller. Of white voters who thought racial integration has gone too fast or at about the right pace, Miller received six out of 10 votes. Of white voters who think the pace of integration has been too slow, Howell received six out of 10 votes.

Howell's success with white and black voters closely corresponded to the racial split in the votes from the South for President Carter last November. While Howell was getting nine out of 10 black votes, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate received only about 45 per cent of the white vote, according to the survey.

A large majority of all voters surveyed said they think Howell can do a better job than Miller in dealing with who cast a substantial majority of their ballots for Miller, rated Howell better on handling issues by a small majority.

About six out of 10 voters surveyed said Howell would do a better job of keeping taxes down, providing honest government and handling racial matters. Seven out of 10 said he would do a better job of dealing with utility firms.

Miller said during the campaign the Republicans who thought Howell would be and easier opponent for Dalton might vote for Howell in the primary, but the survey results show that Miller was the major beneficiary of the Republican vote.

About one in 16 voters surveyed identified themselves as Republicans, and two out three of that number said they voted for Miller.