When the votes in the governor's race are counted throughout Virginia Tuesday night, the strategists for Democrat Henry Howell and Republican John N. Dalton will be matching them both against their own victory strategies and against the traditional political geography of Virginia.

Anyone, such as Howell, challenging the conservative political establishment in the state has always known several things:

He is bound to lose heavily in the Richmond area Third Congressional District where a largely black city vote is offset by a massive conservative white vote in surrounding Henrico and Chesterfield counties.

To offset that he needs huge majorities of his own from the more liberal cities in Tidewater (the first, second and fourth Congressional Districts) where a black inner-city vote is augmented by labor union and blue-collar support in the suburbs.

He has also traditionally needed to add victory margins in the Northern Virginia Eighth and 10th Districts and Southwest Virginia Ninth, while expecting to lose the Roanoke-Lynchburg Sixth and the Shenandoah Valley Seventh.

Howell fractured this history - much to everyone's surprise, including his own - in winning the June Democratic primary when he lost the Ninth District, carried the Sixth and almost carried the Seventh in a light vote. But the Sixth and Seventh are Republican Districts and nobody expects that to happen again.

The real question is whether Howell can carry the southwestern Ninth District that liberal challengers have always needed, but which also is Dalton's home area.

Can Howell, in addition, marshal the 65 per cent majority of the vote his strategists say he needs from the six Tidewater cities of Hampton. Norfolk, Portsmouth. Virginia Beach, Newport News and Chesapeake? Last Friday Dalton made an impressive show of strength in Norfolk, turning out 1,200 people, including Virginia Beach Democratic chiettain Sidney Kellam at a $10-a-plate campaign breakfast.

Both Howell and Dalton strategists expect to break even in Northern Virginia, an area that voted Republican in last fall's presidential election while electing two Democratic congressmen. But if Howell loses by much in Northern Virginia he could be in danger, his strategists believe.

Howell's people say he will carry the First, Second, Fourth, Eighth, Ninth and 10th Districts, and will cut his losses in the Third by polling 40 per cent of the vote there.

The Dalton people, while challenging Howell's prediction of what districts he will carry, will not say precisely where they will make their strongest bids to cut into his majority or pile up majorities of their own.

"In an election as close as this one, the districts almost become meaningless," said Dalton's campaign manager, William A. Royall. "Every vote counts. I think the dimensions of John Dalton's vote are going to surprise a lot of people."