Republican gubenatorial nominee John N. Dalton is leading Democrat Henry E. Howell by 44 to 39 per cent - with 17 per cent undecided - among Virginians registered to vote in the Nov. 8 election, according to a statewide poll by The Washington Post.

The poll shows that Howell is having trouble overcoming a negative image with voters, including one-third of those who consider themselves Democrats or independents who lean toward the Democratic Party. In all, one out of every three Dalton supporters apparently is motivated primarily by a dislike of Howell.

Howell's problems within his own party are underscored by a survey finding that his Democratic running mates currently enjoy large leads coinciding roughly with the hefty numerical edge held by Democrats in Virginia.

The survey of 1.003 registered voters conducted by The Post Oct. 20-23 shows Democrat Charles S. Robb leading Republican A. Joe Canada in the race for lieutenant governor by 48 to 29 per cent with 23 per cent undecided. In the race for attorney general, Democrat Edward E. Lane leads Republican J. Marshall Coleman, 38 to 24 per cent, with 38 per cent undecided.

Almost half the Virginia voters describe themselves as Democrats or independents leaning toward the Democratic Party; but in the governor's race only two out of three of these voters say they support Democrat Howell.

Fifteen per cent of this Democratic and Democratic - leaning bloc is still undecided and 17 per cent say they support Dalton. Two out of three of the Democrats for Dalton say their voting intentions are based more on a disapproval of Howell than on approval of the Republican candidate.

Independents make up 29 per cent of the Virginia electorate, according to the poll, and two out of three of them who have made up their minds said they are supporting Dalton. Of independents who say they lean toward neither major party, more than four in 10 of those who favor Dalton are influenced by anti-Howell feelings.

Even among Republicans, Dalton appears to benefit more from anti-Howell sentiment than he does from enthusiasm for his own candidacy. Four in 10 of the Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party said they disapprove of Howell more than they approve of Dalton. Only one in three in this group said their support is primarily motivate by approval of the GOP candidate.

The anti-Howell sentiments do not fall into a few categories that can be explained by specific political issues. The largest single group of anti-Howell voters in the survey - 25 per cent - said simply that they don't like him" or regard him as "just another politician."

Howell has played a controversial role in Virginia politics for 15 years. He has been the Democratic Party's best-known advocate of black rights and its several critic of the utilities and big business.

Moreover, he campaigns with a free-wheeling style that contrasts sharply with that of most Virginia politicians. The adverse reaction this has produced in many Virginia voters was stummed up the day after the Democratic primary last June by Howell's former campaign manager, Paul Goldman, who said, "Henry has an image problem."

The registered voters who were surveyed perceived themselves as being closer to Dalton than to Howell in terms of political ideology but do not view Howell as an extremist.

ON a scale of 0 to 100, with 50 representing the moderate midpoint between very liberal (0) and very conservative (100) , all voters say themselves on an average at 60.7.

They saw Dalton slightly to the right at 66.1. They viewed Howell as to the left of themselves at 47.6, a middle-of-the-road position.

The survey shows that Howell still has overwhelming support among blacks. This support has been an essential element of his political strength.

Blacks constituted 13 per cent of 77 to 7 per cent with the rest undecided.

Whites, on the other hand, supported Dalton by 50 to 33 per cent, with the rest undecided.

Those surveyed were asked to rate the two candidates on their ability to keep taxes down, provide honest government, handle racial matters and deal with utility firms.

Only in their ability to deal with utility firms did those surveyed see a big difference between the candidates. Howell was favored 43 to 29 per cent.

Dalton, was seen as more likely to control taxes - by 34 to 29 cents - and more likely to provide honest government - by 37 to 32 per cent. Howell was seen as better able to deal with racial matters by 31 per cent, compared with 30 per cent for Dalton.

The poll also found that Republicans are somewhat more likely to vote in this election than are Democrats. Ths finding is typical of election nationwide.

Many of the 1-in-6 undecided voters identified in the poll undoubtedly will stayed away from the polls on election day. The Howell and Dalton campaign managers feel the rest are highly susceptible to lat minute advertising.

Dalton Manager William A. Royall said."Our polling results and The Post results both show a high undecided votes. That means anything could happen. It boils down to the effectiveness of the voter-turnout operations of each campaign."

HOwell manager William Rosendahl said basically the same thing: "The Post survey pretty much says what we've been saying. It's a toss up. It comes down to turnout. We see it as a matter of organization."

In the survey, 1 in 3 of the Howell supporters say they are motivated primarily by anti-Dalton feelings. However, experienced campaign officials and veteran Virginia election analyst Larry Sabato said in interviews they believe the anti-Dalton sentiment is more political than personal.

Sabato is now a Howell campaign adviser whose analyses of Virginia elections have been published by the University of Virginia Institute of Government. He identified Howell as the "polarizing candidate" in this election and added:

"There is one view that a polarizing candidate such as Howell generates strong positive and negative feelings about the other candidate. That may be what is happening in this election. John Dalton began as a relatively unknown candidate and it is hard to believe he would generable that much strong feeling on his own."