When John Dalton first ran for the Virginia General Assembly in 1965, he didn't look for a burning issue on which to mount his campaign.

Instead, he took the list of registered voters in his district, cross-indexed it by name and street address, and over a period of nine months personally visited each one of the 8,000 homes in Radford and Montgomery County where anyone cast a ballot.

He filled out index cards on every family, with the occupation of the breadwinner, the ages of the children, where they went to school and when they would be voting age. He found out who needed absentee ballots and when. And he had workers telephone his supporters and turn them out.

It was a methodical translation of the intensely personal, two-party political tradition of Southwest Virginia into the mechanical realities of the computer age.

And it worked: Republican Dalton carried his normally Democratic district with 59 per cent of the vote.

Today, as his lifelong campaign for the govership of Virginia enters its final days, John Dalton remains firmly wedded to the mechanics of electioneering, running scared with a campaign in which issues have long since been subordinated to organization.

"It's no longer a question of catching up with Henry," he said the other day in Chesterfield County. "It's a question of identifying our vote and turning it out."

In speech after speech as he campaigns across Virginia, he soft-peddles the polls that now show him leading slightly in the race for the governorship and pleads for workers.

"We've got to be encouraged by the polls," he said Friday night in Stafford County. "But the only poll that counts is the one on election day."

Where once he asked for money for the campaign, today he askes housewives and millionaires alike to spend time at a phone bank. His million-dollar campaign is haunted by the lesson of Andrew Miller's well-financed loss to Howell in the June Democratic primary: Money alone won't do the job.

"There are signs on every desk in my Richmond headquarters," he told the Stafford audience. "They say 'Remember Governor Miller!'"

"People ask me how Andrew Miller lost the primary," Dalton told a luncheon last week in the Southside Virginia community of Jarratt. "In the six Tidewater cities Howell's people called every qualified voter and asked them what they thought of Henry Howell. Those that didn't like him, they didn't call back. But those that said they liked him, they noted down and on election day they started calling. They did that all over the state.

"Across the state they got out 35 per cent of their voters to the polls. Miller's people got out only 26 per cent. Howell carried those six Tidewater cities by 30,000 votes. He lost the rest of the state by 17,000 but that didn't matter. He had gotten 'em out where it counted."

The audiences are sobered by that recitation, which is a mainstay, these days, of almost every Dalton speech. Many of those at the rallies and luncheons are elderly conservative Democrats fearful of Howell but equally ill at ease with anything as impersonal as a telephone bank.

To them, the traditions of Virginia and her politics are wedded in the trust of one friend for another - and of "passing the word." Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. still exhorts that tradition when he calls on his audiences to "take time to speak to your friends" on Dalton's behalf.

But Dalton's campaign staff, many of them young Republican veterans of campaigns elsewhere in the nation, have little patience with such nostalgia.

They roll their eyes at the memory of Godwin's campaign four years ago, when they believe the former Democrat's partisans leaned more on oratory than organization and produced a precarious shambles of a campaign in which, among other mistakes, the candidate and the press flew across the state to a rally that wasn't there.

The Godwin campaign, they say was based on Godwin's private vision of things as they should be. The Dalton campaign, they say, is very much keyed to things as they are.

Thus his schedules and appearances in the campaign's closing days have been largely a smooth-running parade of events that generate few headlines but manage to show the flag and maybe win a spot on the evening news.

And at each one John Dalton talks of telephones and turning out the vote.