Republican John N. Dalton last night scored a surprisingly easy victory for governor of Virginia over Democrat Henry E. Howell, riding the crest of a strong anti-Howell vote that the Norfolk populist was unable to neutralize.

With returns from 40 per cent of the state's precincts counted, Dalton had developed a commanding 55 to 44 per cent lead over Howell and appeared to be leading his party to its biggest victory in Virginia history.

Dalton's large margin over Howell, who was making his third race for governor, was a defeat for President Jimmy Carter, who had campaigned for his long-time friend.

Democrat Charles S. (Chuck) Robb of McLean, 38, the son-in-law of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, was the only Democrat who appeared to be winning one of Virginia's three statewide offices last night. Robb, who will succeed Dalton in the largely ceremonial position of lieutenant governor, easily defeated his Republican opponent. State Sen. A. Joseph Canada of Virginia Beach.

The victory for Robb, who was winning 55 per cent of the vote, makes him the first Northern Virginian to hold statewide office in 50 years and a likely candidate for governor in four years.

In the race for attorney general, Republican State Sen. J. Marshall Coleman, 34, took a narrow lead over Democrat Edward E. Lane, of Richmond. With 30 per cent of the votes counted, Coleman held a 50-1 to 49.9 per cent lead over Lane. If elected, Coleman who made a major issue out of Lane's support for Virginia's massive resistance policy, would be the stake's first Republican attorney general.

From almost the moment the polls closed, the Dalton campaign was confident of victory. Citing the record heavy vote for a gubernatorial election - 15 to 20 per cent ahead of four years ago - Dalton's campaign manager William A. Royall, said, "I think we've got it won."

Under Virginia law, the present governor, Republican Mills E. Godwin, is unable to succeed himself in the $60,000-a-year position.

Dalton appeared to be the beneficiary of massive ticket splitting by the three out of every 10 Virginia voters who regard themselves as independents, according to a Washington Post survey. Howell was able to get only half as much of the independent vote as Robb won.

A large number of independents apparently stayed away from the polls, resulting in a higher proportion of Republican voters than is normally found in the Virginia electorate voting, according to the Post survey of voters leaving the polls.

More than half of those voting for Dalton said they did so more because of their disapproval of Howell than because of their approval of Dalton, according to the survey. Nearly three out of every 10 Virginia voters said their vote was a vote against Howell, according to the Post poll. One out of every four Howell voters said they picked Howell because they didn't like Dalton.

Dalton, according to the Post survey, was able to get the support of nine of every 10 Virginians who voted for President Ford in 1976. But Howell managed to get only three out of every four Carter voters.

Howell appeared to have captured 95 per cent of Virginia's black vote, but only 40 per cent of the white voters voted for him.

The Post survey showed the election was close in Northern Virginia, but Dalton was piling up large margin in the broad, central section of the state. Howell appeared to be winning in Southwest Virginia and the big cities of the state's urban corridor.

Howell and Dalton campaigned almost up until the polls closed at 7 p.m. yesterday. Howell spent his day in Norfolk, touring predominantly Democratic precincts and being serenaded by elementary school children. Dalton voted early in an elementary school near his home in Radford and then flew into virtually all of the state's major television markets where he greeted voters at Republican precincts and chatted with reporters.

The race for governor was one of the most bitter and the most costly in Virginia history. A millionaire and professed champion of the state's business community, Dalton raised more than $1.6 million for his campaign, much of it from businessmen worried about Howell.

A careful deliberate campaigner, Dalton funneled much of his money into building an elaborate get-out-the-vote operation, shunned massive media purchases and rejected the offers of Republican celebrities like former President Gerald Ford and former California governor Ronald Reagan to campaign for him.

By comparison, Howell's campaign spending in the general election, more than $700,000, seemed meager. But the former lieutenant governor was able to start with wide lead over Dalton in time recognition, according to both Republican and Democratic strategists. In addition, he had benefited from the $400,000 he spent in winning an upset victory over former Attorney General Andrew P. Miller in the June 14 Democratic primary.

From t he outset Howell had difficulty winning over Miller's backers, 40 per cent of whom, according to a Washington Post primary day survey, said they would have difficulty voting for Howell in the general election. Howell, known as a populist, stormed the state, insisting that he was the "most conservative" politician in Virginia history.

Howell relied heavily on this "conservative" image and his personal friendship with Carter, "my friend across the Potomac." Carter spent six hours with Powell and his running mates on Sept. 24, drawing an impressive crowd of 9,400 in Roanoke, a smaller one in Norfolk and finally raising more than $100,000 for Howell and his Democratic running mates at a WIlliamsburg dinner.

That theme seemed to be working for Howell, but Dalton said he believed the campaign began to turn his way when Howell, in a speech to the Virginia State AFL-CIO convention, attacked Dalton for having a conflict of interest on a banking bill he had sponsored as a state senator.

After that speech, in which Howell said Dalton may have "feathered his nest," Dalton said financial contributions began to pour into campaign. Until then the money had been slow in coming, and Dalton and his wife had had to borrow $90,000 from a bank to lend to Dalton's campaign.

Howell tried to document his banking charge, but Dalton and most of the state's newspaper editors said Howell's evidence was unconvincing. Howell, in turn, attacked some of the state's largest newspapers including The Washington Post, accusing the newspaper editors and reporters by name of failing to agree with his charges.

The rhetoric in the campaign continued to escalate, and Howell, after a meeting of the State Democratic Central Committee, likened some of Dalton's direct mail literature to Nazi propaganda and said whoever wrote the letters was "meaner than a junkyard dog."

Dalton said he was responsible for the letters and abruptly canceled plans for any further joint appearances with Howell, including a televised debate. In a decision that initially troubled some of his supporters, Dalton said Howell's rhetoric had passed the point of civility and the scheduled debates would serve no meaningful purpose.

Later when public opinion polls showed Dalton leading Howell, the Democrat was to cite the lack of debates as a reason for his apparent drop in the surveys. With the debates, Howell insisted he would have been ahead.

The two men are as far apart on some issues as Dalton's sprawling brick Radford home is from Howell's white, clapboard Norfolk home.

However, the two candidates took essentially the same stand against a general tax increase during the coming four years, but Howell was more emphatic about it than Dalton.

Having been branded as a big spender in the past, he and his advisers were determined to create an image of fiscal conservatism that would equal the reputation for tight-fisted government of the old organization of former Gov. and Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr.

Howell was a determined foe of the organization. However, at one point in this race he said, "When I get up there (in the governor's office), I'm going to make Sen. Byrd took like a spendthrift.

Howell promised to veto any general tax increase, a pledge that Dalton declined to make. Howell, however, stressed that his no-tax promise was limited to general taxes - the sales and income tax - and would not rule out proposing increases in such special taxes as cigarettes and alcohol taxes.

The gubernatorial candidates divided sharply over two continuing controversies in state government - greater autonomy for cities and counties and collective bargaining by public employees.

Dalton favored no change in the existing balance of power between local governments and the state. Cities and counties now have no powers not explicitly granted to them by the General Assembly.

Howell proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow local governments to enact new laws, including new taxes, subject to a vote of approval by city or county voters.

Howell's proposed would allow the Assembly to overturn a local action by a two-thirds vote of both houses.

Dalton campaign as an unequivocal foe of collective bargaining by public employees, now illegal in Virginia. Howell said he favors collective bargaining personally, but would not impose it on any city or county.

He proposed letting cities and counties make their own employee relations policies. Howell said he would try to establish collective bargaining for executive branch employees.