Virginia's 1977 race for the governorship whirled toward a close last night in a locale as improbable as much of the campaign itself.

At separate party rallies in the coal-minded Appalachian town of Clintwood (population 1,320), Democrat Henry Howell and Republican John Dalton exhorted the faithful just 10 miles from the Kentucky border and more than 400 from the crowded Northern Virginia suburbs on which Tuesday's election may depend.

As television carried their messages through the final hours and radio trumpeted their last appeals, both candidates tapered off their long, whirlwind quests for the history-shrouded, $60,000-a year post that wields more executive power than almost any other governorship in the nation.

More than 1 million voters are expected to turn out at the state's 1,833 polling places to decide a race most politicians in the state feel remains essentially too close to call. In the end, it may be decided in Northern Virginia, home of one-fifth of the state's electorate and an area that voted Republican in the 1976 presidential election, and elected two Democrats to Congress at the same time.

As one of only two statewide elections in the nation this year (the other is in New Jersey, the Virginia race is certain to be viewed, however accurately, as a test for the Southern-style politics of President Carter.

Carter campaigned for his friend Howell even as the Republican National Committee funneled heavy technical assistance and personnel to Dalton. Appearances by actrees Elizabeth Taylor (for Dalton and former first Lady Bird Johnson (for Howell's running mate for lieutenant governor and her son-in-law, Charles Robb have added unusual national overtones to this election in a state that has traditionally treasured its political insularity.

But the national figures, like the national issues of gun control, right-to-work, the Equal Rights Amendment and others have largely faded in the final weeks of the campaign to be replaced by a larger one as old and as indigenous as the commonwealth itself: Who will best preserve the "Virginianess" of Virginia.

"The issue in this campaign," John Dalton says "is the preservation of the kind of government we've had in Virginia throughout my lifetime."

"The issue in thie campaign, says Henry Howell, "is bringing to life the words of George Mason in Section II of Article One in the Virginia Bill of Rights: "All power in vested in the people and consequently derived from the people."

Dalton's people picture him as the heir apparent to a long tradition of conservatism, continuity, predictability, and decorum in the governor's mansion that has kept Virginia a low tax, right-to-work state looked upon with favor by industries moving south. It is a state that gives its governor great power - there is no provision, for example, for the legislature to override any veto the governor hands down after legislative sessions. In addition, Virginia governors have the power to cut the budget unilaterally if the state runs short of money.

Dalton's supporters picture Howell as an erratic liberal given ton contradictory statements and personal unpredictability who as governor would prove both an economic danger and a social embarrassment to Virginia in both the nation and the world.

They point out that Virginia gives its governor immense, if seldom used, power including appointments to more than 1,000 positions on state boards and agencies, an absolute veto that cannot be overridden by the legislature, and the power to unilaterally cut the budget if the state runs short of money.

Howell's people, on the other hand, picture him as a creative legislator who would open up the channels of state government and end the long-time dominance of Richmond's Capital Square by a coalition of economic interests that includes big business, banks and public utilities.

Dalton, they say, is an unimaginative small-town lawyer who will perpetuate a system of social and economic stratification in the state that has persisted for most of this century and exploited most of the commonwealth's people.

Those were the essential issues, however, in Howell's two previous campaigns for governor. And the current election to succeed Gov. Mills E. Godwin, who by law cannot succeed himself, has proven curiously devoid of new ones.

Instead, both the Republicans and Democrats have concentrated on identifying and turning out an electorate already polarized by Howell while the candiates themselves zip around the state.

The result, particularly in the final weeks, has been a curiously flat campaign, highlighted by a chase around the state in airplanes and motorcades and a series of carefully orchestrated media events from which a few bizarre vignetes from real life leap to mind:

The postmistress of Onemo, Va., (zip code 23130) declaring at a cider and doughnut rally in Mathews County that she will vote for John Dalton because "I kissed him and he has hot lips . . . I like his touch . . . the way he holds you and makes you feel secure."

Phillip Agee, a young man who was inspecting a 12-gauge shotgun in a Western Autostore in a town of Vinton when Howell swept up with a television crew and used him as a prop for an endorsement of the right of all Americans to bear arms. He will not vote for Howell.

Dalton's press bus, blowing a tire amid heavy night traffic on Interstate 95, and denying most reporters a chance to see Dalton speak in a bUdweiser warehouse in Stafford County in front of more than 2 million cans of beer.

The "Howell Air Force" of four planes carrying three Democratic candidates, two aides, to TV film crews and 11 reporters over mountains and through rain and fog to see Howell campaign in the intensive care unit at the University of Virginia Medical Center.

Howell's wife, Betty, chasing a CBS film crew from her house in Norfolk when they had come at 5:15 a.m. to catch the candidate with his morning coffee. Explains Howell's son Hank on the resulting film: "She bites!"

Dalton's whose car has slipped of a rain-slick road into a ditch near Hillsville, offering a campaign hand and greeting to the bib-overalled locals the moment they emerge from their pickup trucks to rescue him.

Dalton, whose every campaign move is planned to the minute, glancing constantly at his schedules. On Friday as he left a campaign breakfast in Norfolk for a television talk show, he carried one that said a makeup man would be waiting in the car to touch him up for the cameras and "LEM (his scheduler, Larry Murphy) might want to program JND for informal chatting."

Howell, who is anything but programmed, acting on impulse. Thursday in Fredericksburg, within the space of 20 minutes, he met a man he didn't know who said the gun-control issue was killing him: taped a spontaneous radio ad embracing guns with-gusto; found a Pizza Hut franchiser to finance a seven-spot per day gun-control blitz in Fredericksburg through election day and bought and scheduled the ads. He then flew off through the rain to Norfolk, and to whatever the future holds.