Democratic gubernatorial nominee Henry E. Howell, in the course of a 16-hour, 15-stop campaign trek today through seven counties in eastern Virginia, nipped at Gov. Mills E. Godwin, calling him "insensitive" and criticizing him for lack of leadership.

In contrast to Godwin's recent sharp attacks on Howell's character and qualifications to be governor. Howell's references to his longtime adversary were couched in mild, somewhat enigmatic phrases. Nonetheless, his allusions to the governor and the state's conservative power structure, which Howell has for so long viewed as his main obstacle, were unmistakeable.

Godwin, campaigning for Howell's opponent, Republican John N. Dalton, recently called Howell "irresponsible" and unworthy to be governor. During one campaign appearance, Godwin invoked the memory of past Virginia leaders whose portraits hang in the State Capitol.

"We've go a governor, all he does now is walk around and talk to the portraits up there," Howell said during a speech to community college students.

Earlier today, standing on the rear platform, Harry Truman-style, of his campaign camper in Gloucester. Howell said that Godwin had failed to apply for federal disaster relief assistance for fishermen affected by Kepone pesticide contaimination. Kepone was manufactured in Hopewell, Va., and waste spilled into the James River, contaminating several species of commercial fish and causing financial hardship for hundreds of Virginia's watermen.

In order to get federal disaster unemployment assistance, Howell said Godwin would have had to declare the area a disaster and then apply for the aid, which he did not so. Howell called this an example fo Godwin's "insensitivity."

Howell said that he would have applied for the assistance if he had been governor.

Transportation Secretary Wayne Whitham, said that he had been a member of a delegation of state officials who were told by a representative of the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration that assistance was available only for natural disasters, not for manmade events such as the Kepone tragedy.

Howell's reference to Godwin were an underplayed theme heard throughout a day of vigorous and good-natured campaigning in Virginia's Northern Neck.

One college student, for example asked Howell for his reaction to Godwin's saying, "You're not a Virginia gentleman."

I've lived here as long as Mr. Godwin has, and my grandparents and great-grandparents have been here as long as he has," Howell said. "My mother taught me the same good manners as his mother taught him," Howell paused. "I don't think his opinion is worth very much."

Howell started the day before dawn greeting workers entering the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., Virginia's largest private employer. The company employees union has endorsed Dalton, but Howell and his running mates, Charles S. (Chuck) Robo, who is running for lieutenant governor, and Edward E. Lane, candidate for attorney general, nonetheless shook workers' hand and passed out campaign literature with gusto.

Howell later visited five country stores, met students in Gloucester, York and here, and called out to voters on the street and in stores from the loudspeaker attached to his camper.

"Here we are campaigning for your mother's vote," he said, while driving through the minute town of Lively. "Hey Allen Clark, over there by the post office, we need your vote. We need the vote of Grumpy's Pizza, and we need the vote of Lively's Supermarket . . . this is Henry Howell visiting with the proprietor of the Exxon station. If you're inside, I need your vote.

Meanwhile, Dalton, campaigning in the Southside Virginia city of Emporia, drove reporters by the house where he was born and challenged Howell to outdo him in humble origins.