The Eighth District Black Caucus gathered in the cafeteria of a community center in Fairfax this week and asked Democratic gubernatorial candidate Henry F. Howell what he could do for them.

"First I have to get elected," Howell said. "That's not meant to (elicit) and laughs, you understand. I can't do anything less I'm elected on Nov. 8. You're going to have to have a certain amount of faith based on my record of what I've done in the past."

That, in one form or another, is the message that Howell returns to again and again as the campaign draws to a close.

Gone are the frequent announcements of positions on issues, of discussions of taxes, pay raises for state employees, and attacks on the media. Instead there was last week one major press conference in which Howell made the most comprehensive effort of his career to document his claim that the "Big Boys" are out to stop him from being governor. By listing 151 contributors to Republican John N. Dalton who either serve on bank boards, are affiliated with the investment firms, Howell attempted to shore up his image as a fighter for the consumer against the entrenched establishment of "interlocking financial interests."

"You'll either have a Republican governor and the same old thing," he said to the black group, "Or Henry Howell and something different."

Over and over again during the past week Howell has exhorted listeners to remember one thing: if they don't go and vote he will lose. Howell's victory is dependent on a fragile coalition of generally out-of-the mainstream groups - labor, blacks, consumers, - people who wnat to buck the Virginia establishment and elect the man who calls himself "the people's candidate."

While his crew of volunteers and paid staff work the phone banks and concentrate on getting people to the polls, the candidate himself is spending a lot of time in his two key areas - Tidewater and Northern Virginia. Observers generally agree that if Howell doesn't win with a substantial majority in Tidewater and at least lead in Northern Virginia, he has little hope of moving into the governor's mansion next year.

"The polls say that your candidate is behind," Howell said to the caucus. "The numbers of Democrats - those that voted for Harry Truman, voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, voted for John Fitzgerald Kennedy, voted for Jimmy Carter - those people, if they come to the polls, are going to elect Henry Howell and the Rainbow Ticket."

The mood of the candidate was cheerful last week as he endured endless and exhausting days of campaigning. Starting as early as 5:30 a.m. and going until after midnight, Howell visited country stores and groups of Democrats, students, laborers, veterans and senior citizens, sounding his familiar themes.

The candidate seems only minimally perturbed by the polls, which show him behind Dalton. His aides even see reason to be glad he is running behind - the same indicators before last spring's primary motivated Howell supporters to turn out to such an extent that he won by 13,612 votes over former Attorney General Andrew P. Miller.

Indeed, his aides say, what could be more appropriate than for the self-professed champion of the underdog to be an underdop himself?

Howell also hopes to benefit by an unprecedented show of support for him from the often diffused ranks of Democratic party leadership. State legislators have closed ranks behind him even thoug most of them supported Miller in the primary, and such former foes from the past as gubernatorial candidate William C. Battle and former governor Colgate Darden have made public statements of support.