REP. PETER W. RODINO'S abysmal exercise in political exploitation and overkill in behalf of the gubernatorial candidacy of Democrat Henry Howell in Virginia is a subject of contention, and properly so. It involves a couple of pro-Howell commercials that Mr. Rodino made for radio and TV and which have evidently now been retired from use. They gave rise to two separate questions, one concerning their financing and the other concerning what Mr. Rodino actually said.

We do not mean to dismiss the question of whether Mr. Rodion pulled a fast one in taping this partisan political campaign message in the House Recording Studio a taxpayer-supported facility. Mr. Rodino has said, however, that he had made clear his intention to reimburse the studio and in any event though an out-and-out commercial may be stretching things a bit far we doubt this is the first time the House Recording Studio has been used to immortalize a message that was purely political in nature. So we will let others worry about whether the recording of the commercial itself was too expensive. What disturbs us is that the message was so cheap.

Listen to the words of Mr. Rodino: "As chairman of the committee which conducted the impeachment inquiry, I learned with you about Watergate and about the terrible abuses by people who tried to undermine our system of free elections. This year many of the same practices have been used in the Virginia campaign for governor. I believe it is time to leave Watergate and all that it means behind us and for all citizens to insist on campaigns conducted in the sunshine. That's why I'm supporting Henry Howell."

Is really why Mr. Rodino is supporting Mr. Howell - because he perceives Watergate-sized abuses in the Dalton campaign against him? Of course not Mr. Rodino is supporting Mr. Howell because they are both Democrats.And if he has evidence that anything comparable to the "terrible abuses" that helped bring Mr. Nixon down are being perpetrated in the Virginia campaign he should come right out and say what they are.

We regard some of the reported activities against Mr. Howell as being pretty sleazy. But Mr. Rodino's moment in history, his exceptional conduct of the House inquiry into the Nixon wrongdoing seems to us a moment worth honoring and preserving. And so too the distinctive character of the offenses that propelled Mr. Nixon from office seems worth insisting on. Watergate, if we may say so is not for selling pantyhose or orange juice or Henry Howell. And Mr. Rodino should not have let his own and his committee's remarkable achievement be misused (and thus diminished) this way.