GONE ARE THE DAYS when Virginia's Republican Party could have conducted its state conventions in a closet. That spectacular nomination convention last weekend in Richmond - which attracted more than 9,000 delegates, alternates and other party supporters - made it abundantly clear that the GOP is not only alive and well in the Old Dominion, but intent on staying around for a while. Presumably this message won't be lost on the state's Democrats, who are meeting this weekend in Williamsburg - having given up going to the people through primaries in favor of the convention method long favored by Republicans.

Though many Democrats reportedly view the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, Richard D. Obenshain, as the weakest of the main GOP contenders who might have been selected, they will make a mistake to underestimate his hard campaign work and/or make too much of his self-professed conservatism. For one thing, it shouldn't take much for any major party candidate to look more attractive than the man who is being replaced, Sen. William L. Scott, whose ultra-conservatism turns liberal only when it comes to taking free trips to all corners of the world at the expense of you-know-who. Moreover, other politicians in Virginia who would cringe at being labeled liberals have compiled impressive records at the polls. Six of the state's 10 House members are Republicans; and in the Senate, there is independent Harry F. Byrd, who enjoys GOP support. In Richmond, the last two of three consecutive Republican governors also ran as conservatives: Mills E. Godwin, who was instrumental in securing the nomination for Mr. Obenshain, and John N. Dalton, who overwhelmed an opponent viewed as liberal, Henry E. Howell.

In any event, it can be misleading to rely heavily on any liberal-convervative analysis of elections in the state; for example, what about the victories of Republicans Linwood Holton for governor and J. Marshall Coleman, the attorney general - both of whom attracted support generally classified as "liberal"? What matters is that the Republican party in Virginia is stronger than it has been in decades - reinforced and apparently quite unified after an exhilarating gathering last weekend. The question now is whether the Democrats can come away from Williamsburg in similar shape.