On a gray Sunday afternoon late last February, a dozen of this city's wealthiest conservative businessmen met secretly at a home in the exclusive West End area and, for all intents, picked Richmond's next congressman.

They selected former Richmond mayor Thomas J. Bliley Jr., assured him enough money to crush two opponents for the Republican nomination and thereby frightened off a half dozen prospective Democratic challengers. The result: Bliley faces only token opposition this fall on his way to becoming Richmond's first GOP congressman since Reconstruction.

If Bliley wins, some will say his election was decided in a former state senator's house, where four prospective candidates were first interviewed and then asked to leave the room while the GOP power brokers voted. When the would-be candidates returned, they were informed that those present had decided that Bliley, now an undertaker, was the most electable.

The other three candidates then agreed to withdraw, and two days later Bliley went to the State Capitol to announce he was in the race.

Tom Bliley's triumph reflects the continuing growth of Virginia's Republican Party. But it also mirrors the power of those dozen businessmen and their friends on Richmond's Main Street, individuals who are heirs to the once mighty Byrd machine and who often select the candidates -- and the winners -- in Virginia politics.

"Tom Bliley was anointed," said Richmond state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat who says he decided not to run because he could not muster support from his party's leaders. "The boys on Main Street picked the man they thought would best represent their interests."

"The Byrd machine, as such, doesn't exist but it's been reborn with a lot of the same characters," says Democrat William Wiley, a congressional aide who also contemplated making the race. "These guys do the anointing and the appointing . . . they also account for at a minimum of 40 percent of the money that goes to the campaigns of the people they support."

The business leaders who attended February's secret session scoff at the notion there was anything insidious or undemocratic about thier meeting.

"These are responsible folks in their party and their community," says former state senator FitzGerald Bemiss, a business consultant at whose house the meeting took place. "We'd had one satisfactory congressman and we wanted to make sure we got another one but we had no power to dictate to anybody."

Still, Bemiss concedes that the speed with which the businessmen rallied behind Bliley guaranteed him the financial support he needed to win and scared off likely opponents.

"That's the name of the game -- who's got the most marbles," says Bemiss.

Richmond is only 90 miles south of Washington, but the way that congressmen are selected here stands in marked contrast to the Washington suburbs, where spirited primary contests and close-fought general elections are the rule. The last close race here was in 1964, when Democrat David E. Satterfield III was first elected. Satterfield has been overwhelmingly reelected seven times since and has faced no Republican opposition since 1970, when he won 76 percent of the vote.

This year would have been different. Joan Girone, a Republican supervisor in suburban Chesterfield County, planned to challenge Satterfield. There was also talk that Wilder, Virginia's only black state senator, would attempt to grab the Democratic nomination from Satterfield, whose ultraconservative voting record had made him a Republican in everything but name, and force the congressman to run as an independent in a three-way contest.

But Satterfield did not give his opponents a chance to challenge him. On Friday, Feb. 22, three days after Girone announced her candidacy, Satterfield, 59, stunned even his closest aides by announcing he would not seek reelection.

Satterfield's bombshell sent aspiring politicians running to the phone to seek support. One of the first was Bliley, a funeral home director who had been looking for a suitable political office to run for since he retired from the city council in 1977.

At first glance, Bliley did not seem a viable GOP candidate. He had held a seat on the city Democratic committee until just 12 months earlier. Also, as mayor he was closely identified with the city when it had annexed part of Chesterfield County and when its school board had atttempted to consolidate its predominantly black school system with that of the surrounding white -- and increasingly Republican -- suburbs.

But Bliley had support where it counted most -- in Richmond's board rooms. Among his first calls that Friday were two to former council colleagues Henry L. Valentine and James C. Wheat Jr., both downtown stockbrokers. Wheat heads the state's largest brokerage firm, Wheat First Securities.

Both men encouraged Bliley's candidacy. By Sunday, they and Judy Peachee, Virginia's National Republican Committeewoman who works for Sen. John Warner's Richmond office, had set up the meeting at Bemiss' house, to which Bliley and three other GOP hopefuls were invited.

Besides Wheat, Valentine and Peachee, the list of attendees included Bemiss, who ran Richard Nixon's Virginia reelection effort in 1972 and chaired Gerald Ford's state finance committee in 1976; investor Lawrence Lewis of Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., a major financial backer of Gop Gov. John N. Dalton; and Walter Craigie, a Wheat financial expert who serves as the state GOP's top fund-raiser. About a half dozen local Republican leaders also attended.

Some of the men who gathered in the Bemiss home were, like Wheat, Lewis, and Craigie, said to be worth millions. More important than thier own wealth, some say, was their ability to speak for Richmond's close-knit business establishment and to tap it for scores of the $1,000 gifts allowed under federal election law.

"These are the guys you obviously like to have on your side," says Chesterfield Del. George Jones, one of the prospective candidates invited to attend. "They have the ability to raise big bucks in any campaign, maybe not out of their own pockets, but they know where to call the right people to get a check in the mail."

During the three-to four-hour meeting, the participants listened to Bliley, Jones and the other two invitees -- physician Louis H. Williams and Assistant State Attorney General William Hurd -- discuss why they wanted to run and why they thought they could win. There was a general discussion about how much money it would cost to win.

"Somebody said $250,000 and somebody else whistled when they heard that figure," recalls Jones.

Girone, who had planned to challenge Satterfield, was not invited to the meeting. Those at the meeting say it was because they did not believe she was "electable." She argues she was excluded because the businessmen intended to nominate one of their own, someone who would represent downtown business interests.

"The whole meeting smacks of the Byrd machine," says Girone, speaking of the Democratic organization that ruled Virginia until the mid-1960s. "This was a pure and simple test of who controls the Republican Party -- grass-roots Republicans or Main Street money."

If so, Main Street triumphed handily. Bliley was able to raise and spend nearly $40,000 in less than two months, compared to Girone's $12,000. He was able to hire full-time office staff and employ respected GOP political consultant Ed DeBolt of Arlington, while Girone relied largely on volunteers. The Bliley forces swamped Girone and a third candidate at most of the local mass meetings and the district convention that followed.

"We got caught flat-footed and run over," says Robert Weed, who headed Girone's campaign. "It was a miracle the way they mobilized the business community -- not only to open thier checkbooks -- but also to get out there and attend the meetings."

While Bliley steamrollered the Republicans, potential Democratic candidates dropped out of contention in rapid succession. Four state legislators, State Corporation Commissioner Junie L. Bradshaw and a Chesterfield supervisor all announced they would not run. Most cited personal and business reasons, but observers pointed to Bliley's solid Main Street backing plus the fact that any Democrat would have to run on Jimmy Carter's questionable coattails. Richmond's conservative congressional district went 57 to 43 for Gerald Ford in 1976 and is expected to support Ronald Reagan just as strongly this year.

In the end, Bliley was left with two lesser known opponents, Democrat John A. Mapp, retired dean of Virginia Commonwealth University's evening school, and former city councilman Howard Carwile, an independent. Neither are expected to give him much of a fight.

Some Democrats, disappointed that their party did not field a major candidate to retain the seat, believe the capitulation to Bliley could hurt the party's chances in next year's gubernatorial races.

"It just helps further the myth of Republican money and Republican organization," says Wiley, who has worked in a number of statewide Democratic campaigns.

Some Republicans also are not pleased that their party's new congressman will be a recent former Democrat, backed by businessmen whose roots also are Democratic. Peachee, who has helped recruit thousands of dissatisfied conservative Democrats into Republican ranks, dismisses that attitude as foolish.

"Bygones are bygones," she says. "In politics you take it election by election and you don't go back to who was where 10 years ago or five years ago or even two years ago."