Former Navy secretary John W. Warner emerged yesterday as the Virginia Republican most likely to inherit Richard D. Obenshain's Senate nomination.

A limited sampling of the 78 party leaders who are charged with replacing Obenshain showed stronger support for Warner than for former Gov. Linwood Holton. Both men had challenged Obenshain for the nomination at a party convention two months ago, a convention that narrowly picked Obenshain on the sixth ballot.

Warner's strong second place finish there was cited by many GOP leaders as the primary factor in considering him the frontrunner. Warner's personel wealth, the attraction of his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor, and his ability to raise campaign funds quickly, also were mentioned as Warner's strengths over Holton.

Obenshain's death will force Democratic Senate nominee Andrew P. Miller to alter what had been the major thrust of his campaign, Democrats and Republicans agreed yesterday.

Miller had expected Obenshain to be the easiest GOP opponent to beat, and had built his strategy largely around portraying Obenshain as an extreme rightwinger.

If the more moderate Warner now becomes the GOP nominee, Miller could be expected to attack Warner's lack of experience as an elected official and his relatively recent arrival on the Virginia political scene. Before the convention, numerous Democrats said that Holton was the candidate they feared most.

Other being mentioned yesterday as possible GOP choices included all six Virginia Republican congressmen and former governor Mills E. Godwin Jr.

Godwin, the only person ever elected governor twice - once as a Republican and once as a Democrat - ended his second term this year with a vow never again to seek elective office. But he surprised some party officials by playing an important role in helping Obenshain to win the nomination, endorsing him on the eve of the convention.

Many of those interviewed yesterday said Godwin was the best hope of holding together the coalition of Republicans and conservative independents and Democrats who have sustained a decude of GOP successes in statewide elections, but few expected Godwin to come out of retirement.

"Were Gov. Godwin to be drafted he would certainly fit into the apparatus that Dick Obenshain had put together," said Robert Doumak, a Norfolk attorney and state central committee member. "I hadn't really considered it, but it would probably have a unifying affect on the party," said Doumak, who had backed Holton.

"If he (Godwin) so much as sent a note to the committee, he wouldn't even have to appear," said Fairfax County Republican Chairman Joseph Ragan.

Many of those contacted yesterday were hesitant to even discuss a successor to Obenshain, particularly those whose names are being mentioned as possibilities. One woman started to cry as she explained that he was too upset to talk.

"I'm very distressed at the loss of a close friend," said Holton. "He and his wife were close to Jinx (Holton's wife) and me. I'm not interested in speculating on a successor until after they put him away." Holton, now a Washington insurance lobbyist, said.

Warner, reached by the Associated Press in Manchester, N.H., where he and his wife attended a fund-raiser, said he was "very badly shaken on the death of a dear friend."

Warner said that "Dick Obenshain and I fought a long hard battle and he won on the sixth ballot by 37 votes of the over 3,000 cast. But for the moment, our hearts are filled only with compassion for his widow at this time and I will have no comment until after the funeral is completed."

Party leaders, including Gov. John N. Dalton and GOP chairman George N. McMath, declared a moratorium on public political assessments until after funeral services are held in Richmond on Saturday. McMath said that a new nominee will be chosen according to party rules by a central committee meeting that cannot be held until seven days after written notice is mailed to its members.

McMath said he will not announce the meeting time and place until Monday, but it is believed by committee members that notice will be mailed this weekend calling a session of the central committee on Aug. 12 in Richmond.

McMath said a nominee can be named by a simple majority of committee members present and voting. Party rules are silent on the details of an emergency nomination and McMath said such questions as to whether the vote will be by secret ballot will be decided by rulings during next week and at the meeting.

Obsenshain's death came at a time of rising optimism among his campaign officials, who believed he was on his way to overcoming the advantage in name identification held by Democratic nominee Miller. Miller defeated Obenshain in a race for attorney general in 1969 and held the office for seven years before resigning to make an unsuccessful race for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1977.

In addition to Warner's wealth and second-place convention finish, some Republicans cited as a plus his lack of conflict with the former conservative Democrats who were playing an active role in Obenshain's campaign.

Holton, who was the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, dismayed some conservatives with his relatively liberal policies on civil rights. He failed to build up his party ties after he was elected.

Virginia's GOP national committee-man. William H. Stanhagen of Falls Church, continued to back Warner as he had during the convention. "John Warner came in a very very strong second," Stanhagen said yesterday. "It's logical that Warner be the nominee."

Ragan, for one, said he doesn't think Obenshain's successor should be picked" on the basis of who was second or third at the convention." Ragan said that if Obenshain hadn't been in the race, "there is no assurance that Warner would have been second, or Holton third." To decide on that basis of the convention Ragan said would be "to disregard the vote of Obenshain's supporters."

Judy Shreve of Falls Church, the 10th District chairman, said that if the committee can't decide between Warner and Holton it "might look outside" to Godwin, but she added: "I don't see that happening."

Shreve said that Dalton could exert tremendous influence over the decision, and "if he made his wishes known, I know I would respond."

Oliver P. Strawn, a Blacksburg engineer and central committee representative from the 9th District, also supported Holton originally at the convention. He said yesterday that "Warner is the most logical. He came very close, and he was there at the end," compared to Holton, who dropped out after three ballots.

Susie Mote of Winchester, an original Warner supporter, said her primary concern is that "there be no further division within the party." She said that "there are no hard feelings between the supporters" of Obenshain and Warner.

She implied the same might not be true with Holton, "who bowed out at the convention.He can't say he's the elder statesman one month and be a candidate the next month," she said.

Mote helped organize a reception for Obenshain on Wednesday night in Winchester, in the 7th District, and was with him hours before he died. Obenshain made such an impression that "I got $800 in pledges in five minutes" at the reception at the home of Dr. George White, she said.

Obenshain had made the coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats a personal political crusade in his 18-year political career and there was evidence of its success and its implications for the choice of a successor in yesterday's comments by central committee members.

"I wouldn't be a Republican today if it weren't for Dick Obenshain," said John H. Clements. GOP state budget director and former Dinwiddie County Democratic chairman. "I will be very much influenced by the thinking of people like . . . Mills Godwin in making my choice of a successor to Dick as nominee."

"I haven't talked to Gov. Holton and have no idea what his attitude toward a nomination is now," state Del. A. R. (Pece) Geisen, a Holton backer from Staunton, said. "But there is no question that because Warner is newer in statewide politics that he bears fewer battle scars and may be in a better position to keep building" the party.

Other experienced Virginia GOP campaign officials point out that Warner's Washington background and his ambitious run for the Senate financed by record expenditures of his own money - about $500,000 - and enhanced by the glamor of his wife has made him suspect with many of the state's traditionalist politicians who backed Obenshain.

They also point out that Warner's wealth and connections with wealth could now be critical. "The question is," said one, "can Linwood Holton raise $10 right now? It could easily take $100,000 next week to gear up a new campaign."

Also contributing to this story was Washington Post staff writer Wilson Morris.