Sitting on his front porch the morning after the biggest political setback of his career, Henry Howell blamed his third defeat for the Virginia governorship on an expensive direct-mail campaign "orchestrated by the right wing," vowed to continue fighting for the people and announced a plan to lobby for the passage of state and national fair campaign practices acts.

Howell was in a reflective and unrepentent mood as he chatted with reporters in the strangely warm November sunshine, while downcast, bleary-eyed supporters milled around drinking bloody marys and coffee. He said he had not ruled out yet another run for the governor's mansion if "there's a meaningful consensus" that he should.

"I'm sure I'll be young and vigorous in four years," he said, "But it's not exactly the era for 61-year-old candidates for governor. That's a fact of life." Later he added, "I expect to be extremely vigorous and looking for a country store when I'm 61."

But the prospects for that "meaningful consensus" are undeniably dim, and most of his supporters and his wife, Betty, seemed to feel that Henry Howell's trip to the state-house has been permanently detoured. Reactions to the 156,421-vote defeat were mixed, with some attributing it to the unpierceable conservatism of the Virginia electorate, others to the money Howell didn't have and his opponent did, and others to the strong emotional reaction Howell seems to inspire in the public - all themes he touched on himself.

"I give up," said Tom Oliver, who worked long and hard on issues research for Howell's campaign, "I'm tired of losing time after time and saying, 'well, maybe next time.' This is a Tory state and that's all there is to it."

Not once throughout a nearly 45-minute meeting did Howell offer congratulations to Republican John N. Dalton, nor did he concede to having made mistakes in his campaign. Instead, like a fighter going down for the 15th time who still comes up with arms flailing and fists clenched. Howell continued his attacks on Virginia Electric and Power Co., the 20-cent pay telephone call, the inaction of the State Corporation Commission and the campaign of his opponent.

"It was a victory for Viguerie," he said, referring to Richard A. Viguerie, a direct-mail expert for conservative causes who was hired by a conservative group to do a mailing of an anti-Howell letter signed by Rep. J. Kenneth Robinson (R-Va.) Dalton himself sent out at least four mailings, which Howell said gave the impression that if Howell were elected "houses would burn, homes would be burglarized, property taxes would go up and people would lose their jobs.

"There was more of it than ever before," Howell said of the direct mail, "It excited fears and emotions . . . it had to be Stop Henry, it had to be creating fears about Henry, that was the main thing . . . particularly in Virginia, because less than 40 per cent of the people over 25 have a high school education. You get a letter in Virginia, it's something special, so it was read . . . The only way you can persuade the mind to act one way or another is a psychological scheduled series of paid-for mass-communicated messages."

He said the Republicans also had a skillfully targeted series of phone banks throughout the state to get out their vote, but he came back again and again to the theme of money.

"Money talks," said Howell, whose general election campaign had less than $700,000 to spend, compared to Dalton's $1.6 million. "With enough money you can beat any candidate."

For this reason, he said, he was going to file "every piece" of campaign literature, the questions asked in his two telephone polls, and every press release with the clerk of the State Senate and with the Congress and challenge Dalton to do the same.This, he said, would lead toward passage of a fair campaign practices act, the details of which he has not worked out.Perhaps there would be a panel of state Supreme Court judges, he suggested, who would review campaign literature and poll questions before they are used.

In addition, he said, there was a need for some form of public financing of statewide elections.

As for the mistakes of his own campaign, he conceded very little. His supporters said privately that his comparing Dalton's campaign literature to that written by Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels was a mistake that turned voters off and that his charge that Dalton had benefited personally from legislation he had introduced while a member of the General Assembly had fallen flat. But Howell did not point to these examples as factors in his defeat.

"Even though I didn't win, I think it was because I was unable to communicate these unfairnesses to the people," he said.

"There's no perfect person," he mused later. "I am what I am . . . I talk in parables. I called his propaganda meaner than a junkyard dog, compared it to Goebbels . . . that's not considered statesman like. I felt it was the way to send up the red flag to the Howell voters . . . I wanted them to hear me.

"I never did understand why everybody got upset when I said he was feathering his nest. Someone who owns a quarter-million dollars of bank stock and puts in a bank bill - to me that's feathering your nest. I never understood that one yet."

While some Howell supporters viewed his defeat as the last chance of a moderately liberal, nonestablishment politician to get elected statewide in Virginia Howell saw no such death knell. A liberal candidate with money, he said, might win.

"There's got to be a change," Howell said of the future. "What we've seen is that the way to get elected to public office is to not do much and say very little. That produces a benchmark of mediocrity."

At that point Howell's wife, who was sitting beside him in a twin white wicker rocker, could contain her well-known outspokenness no longer. "He's going to be a paper puppet," she said of Dalton.

"Now, Betty this is my conference, you don't need to say anything," said Howell, raising his voice.

"Henry, I campaigned for you and I have a right to say something," Mrs. Howell said.

"You can have your conference a little later," Howell said.

His wife repeated her remark and then left.

Later, the only victorious member of the Democratic Rainbow ticket, Lt. Gov.-elect Charles S. (Chuck) Robb, came to pay a courtesy call on Howell.

His reception by the Howell crowd, still nursing the bruises of their defeat, was less than enthusiastic. Howell campaign manager William Rosendahl started a round of applause as Robb and his aides came up the walk, but only about three people joined in. Howell, however, was warm and hailed Robb as "the only man who has campaigned in Vinton (a small town near Roanoke) 10 times."

Robb read an effusive salute to Howell that was typed on an index card, and said he would give "serious consideration" to working for some of the programs Howell has espoused. Politiccians already are mentioning Robb as the likely Democratic gubernatorial standard-bearer in 1981, the young, glossily handsome new politician who in appearance and manner could hardly be more unlike Howell.