Four years ago Henry E. Howell traveled Virginia from crowd to crowd in his quest for the governorship, lambasting the big corporations and utility companies to cheers and applause. Then he lost the election to Mills E. Godwin.

This year Howell wandered the streets of small towns virtually alone, a solitary silver-haired figure with a soiled canvas bag of literature, pressing pamphlets and buttons on apathetic voters. And this time he won.

Howell and his largely volunteer staff had insisted all along that they knew where their votes were. They could win, they said, by concentrating efforts on turning out Howell's hard core supporters - especially labor and blacks - and ignoring the rest. In a low turnout Democratic primary, they said, that would be enough.

Thus, for the last month, Mary Lancaster, 31, wife of the a home improvement contractor, presided over 30 phones and 42 volunteers in Howell's Norfolk headquarters, sampling sentiment for Howell.

"We started," she said, "calling 24 (of Norfolk's 45) precincts - key precincts which Henry carried last time by 50 per cent or better. We found that in almost every case the favorable responses this year were higher than four years ago.

"In many cases it was 2 and 3 to 1. We called back the undecideds and sent them literature and we called back the favorables. On election day we double-called them - once in the morning and once at 4 p.m. Then we went on to secondary precincts."

The result was that Howell polled 21,319 votes in Norfolk to (opponent Andrew R. Miller's 8,790) - which meant that nearly 10 per cent of Howell's total statewide vote came from one city.

Miller won no area's vote so decisively. Even in the Richmond area's Third Congressional District, where liberal candidates traditionally lose by 4 to 1, Howell lost by less than 10,000 votes, polling 30,714 to Miller's 40,501.

His treasury depleted in the final weeks of the campaign, Howell pledged a Chesterfield County municipal bond to a Norfolk bank to borrow $20,000 to place commercials on Norfolk, Roanoke, Bristol and Washington television stations.

The advertisements devised by Atlanta advertising man Gerald Rafshoon who did President Jimmy Carter's 1976 commercials were essential to Howell's success, he said.All the areas the ads were shown except Bristol where Miller once practiced law, went for Howell.

Howell rewrote the traditional voting pattern in Virginia. The political gospel is that any moderate for liberal candidate challenging the conservative establishment needs to roll up heavy margins in Tidewater, Northern Virvinia and Southwest Virginia to offset heavy losses in the conservative Richmond area's Third Congressional District, the Shenandoah Valley's Seventh and the Roanoke-Lynchburg's Sixth.

Howell not only held down his Third Congressional District losses, but he carried the Sixth District and almost won the Seventh. The Ninth Congressional District in Southwest Virginia which Howell should have needed to win according to the conventional political wisdom, was lost by nearly 5,000 votes to Miller.

The low voter turnout, apparently caused in part by rainfall that Howell could not choreographed himself, unquestionably helped. Howell's opponents

"We put them [Howells' opponents] to sleep all over the state," said Jim Gibbs, one of Howell's field coordinators.

But nobody could have been more surprised by it all than the Howell staff, whose optimism had ebbed in the waning days of the campaign in the face of repeated signs of voter indifference.

Howell's campaign scheduler, Elyce Fishman; his press secretary, Frank Bolling, and assistant press secretary, Jill Abramson, all said Tuesday they had been prepared to lose.

The candidate himself "achieved peace of mind about two days ago," Bolling said Tuesday night. "I think he was ready for whatever came."

As the election returns mounted Tuesday night and Howell's lead built to 15,000 votes, the crowd of precinct workers, staff members, telephone canvassers and campaign groupies in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn-Scope in Norfolk roared into a screaming, sign-waving, hand-clapping mob. But the candidate, closeted 10 floors up in the presidential suite, refused to be stampeded.

"This election's not over yet," he said. "It will be midnight in Virginia before either Henry wins or Andy wins"

At 9:10 p.m., with 61 per cent of the vote in his lead slipped to 3,000, and Bolling was scrambling for phones and information. But by 10:30 p.m. the news was in from the Richmond area and the candidate said, "Were hoping."

Howell went down to the ballroom. The crowd went crazy, picked up and hugged the daughter of one of his precinct coordinators, then Howell shuffled a brief mountain flatfoot while the country rock band thundered out its umpteenth version of the "Howell Cannonball."

On the platform he introduced a synagogue cantor named Lou Hornstone who sang a much-applauded version of "Stout-hearted Men," complete with operatic profundo.

"We need another verse!" shouted Howell. And Hornstone sang "Stout-hearted Women."

Then after a few phrases of thanks and encouragement ("It's still a close race . . . we wouldn't be anywhere without the people of Virginia") he went back upstairs.

At 11:30 p.m. Miller conceded and, at midnight, Henry Howell came back down. Already Carter was calling with congratulations, but now Howell stood in the television lights while the mob whislted and cheered.

"It's a great night," he said. "The long fight has just begun."

Remembering his defeat four years ago, in the general election, he said his thoughts were with Miller and his family. "He's a great guy . . . he's done a lot for the party. He's a tough campaigner and we need him."

As Howell was speaking a young man shouted from the audience, "Henry! We believe!"

"There you go," said Howell with a benevolent smile. "You all believe in the things that Henry Howell stood for. And that was right . . . You know the establishment never intended for us to be your governor. But you intended it. And we will be."