Henry E. Howell, three-time candidate for governor of Virginia, looked longingly out his window toward Virginia Beach, and acknowledged that until two days ago, he hadn't even been invited to attend this weekend's state Democratic convention there.

The snub hurt, and the 60-year-old populist, who has spent a lifetime campaigning against and railing about the controlling conservative political establishment in his state, said he is "pas the point" of trying to hide it.

Howell, the Democratic nominee for governor four years ago, said that Democratic Party Chairman Owen Pickett had called him Wednesday night "and said he was embarrassed, but that he didn't realize that I hadn't been invited until a reporter told him."

Howell declined the last-minute invitation, saying "I don't want to be but one of 5,000 people in that mob. Now if they wanted me to make a speech . . . ."

He paused, then forcing a knowing grin, added: "They obviously don't."

Howell, a former lieutenant governor and candidate for governor in 1969, 1973, and 1977, said, "I'm not bitter, but I am a bit disappointed" that Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, who is unopposed as the candidate for governor this year, has virtually ignored him since they were running mates four years ago.

The two men "haven't had a meaningful conversation," Howell said, since Robb came by Howell's house here after the 1977 election, expecting to be congratulated as the lone winner on the Democratic ticket, only to get a perfunctory handshake from Howell and his supporters.

After his overwhelming defeat by John N. Dalton, Howell said he was "prepared to become an elder statesman" of his party, but he has been denied that role by Robb and his backers.

Not that practical politician Howell should be surprised. After all, last December he urged liberal Democrats to abandon the party, and as recently as three weeks ago repeated the suggestion that "if faint hearts control the candidates . . . voters should boycott the process."

Current leaders of the party publicly applaud Robb's effort to capture conservative support and some privately hail his shunning of Howell, saying both steps are necessary to reverse 12 years of Republican control of the Governor's Mansion. But Howell takes issue with that view.

"Hell," scoffed Howell, "Democrats -- real Democrats -- haven't won an election in Virginia for 100 years."

If that's the case, Howell was asked, why shouldn't Robb portray himself as conservative as possible in an effort to defeat his opponent, Republican Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman?

"Because you ought to stand for something more than just wanting to win," Howell replied.

"This used to be a one-party state," he explained. For more than half a century, he said, followers of the late Sen. Harry Flood Byrd Sr. controlled the party. "They were Republicans in philosophy. The state Democratic Party never believed in the principles of the national Democratic Party.

"But now that the Byrd Democrats are where they belong, in the Republican Party, we should be trying to build a coalition that represents most of the people -- labor, blacks, farmers.

"Instead, Chuck has gone out of his way to bring back Bill Tuck [an antiunion, segregationist former governor] and Watt Abbit [an ultraconservative former congressman]."

Nonetheless, today, as Democrats from across the state clogged the Expressway to the Pavilion Convention Center, just 18 miles from Howell's downtown law office here, the fiery battler against big utilities and for the little guy was wistful. His decision to stay away produced a lump in his throat.

Nodding in the direction of the convention site, Howell, his protestations to the contrary, permitted the bitterness to surface.

"You'd think that a Democratic-controlled legislature wouldn't permit the nomination to go uncontested to someone from Arizona [Robb was born in Phoenix] who didn't come to Virginia until he married [former President] Lyndon Johnson's daughter."

"Sure I'll miss being there with my friends and supporters, and the press, too," Howell said, leaning back in a red leather chair bearing the state seal that the Virginia Senate gave him. "But I've also been prepared for this since 1978."

That was the year that Robb, having replaced Howell as titular head of the party, appointed a 15-member committee to revitalize the party. "It was a golden opportunity" for Robb to unite the always feuding factions, Howell said.

"I waited around," Howell said, "but they obviously decided my involvement would cause more harm than good."

Then there was the time last year, he said, when Rosalynn Carter came to Tidewater to campaign for the Carter-Mondale ticket. "You know how I felt about the Carters," he interjected, pointing with pride to a picture that showed Carter "campaigning for me in Roanoke in '77."

Well, Howell continued, he and his wife Betty went to the airport to greet Mrs. Carter, but at the rally there, and one later in Virginia Beach, "Owen Pickett was up there on the stage with her, and he saw us standing in the back, but he didn't bother to even point me out for recognition."

Quickly attempting to hide the misting eyes behind his thick glasses, Howell tried to joke about four years out of the limelight: "They didn't even ask me to make a study for the legislature on the preservation of the marigold."