The Coleman family lived on Bridge Street in the company town of Waynesboro on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The father worked at the DuPont plant for several years, but his spirit yearned for something more. He went off to study theology at a seminary in Pennsylvania, and every weekend he drove back home to his wife and young sons Marshall and Warren. On one such return trip Bill Coleman was in a serious automobile accident that ended his dream.

The mother, Marguerite, forced to take a job, became a secretary at the General Electric plant. Marshall was in fourth grade. He idolized his father, and whenever he could, he left school at noon to be with him back at the house on Bridge Street. One day in January 1952, the 9-year-old came home for lunch but could not find his father. He searched upstairs, and then the basement. There was his dad, dead by suicide, a .38-caliber bullet in his chest.

"Who can say?" says John Marshall Coleman, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, when asked how that boyhood event shaped his life. "I lost a valuable friend and somebody I looked up to. It obviously made my life different."

Marshall Coleman today appears to be the most conventional of Virginia politicians: the cautious Main Street conservative. He is the faithful apostle of President Reagan and Gov. John Dalton, and his campaign slogan -- "Let's Keep a Good Thing Going" -- is a classic endorsement of the status quo. But that is not the essence of the man who emerges from dozens of interviews with people who know him well.

The essence of Marshall Coleman is that he has always been restless and somewhat of an outsider, rarely allowing himself to hold his political elders in quite the same esteem as he held his father. He has been marked as a driven man, some say opportunist, by many of his enemies and colleagues. Even his friends say he is obsessed with success far more than the traditional standard for a Virginia gentleman. Says one political ally, state Sen. Ray Garland: "Marshall has set for himself a hard and formidable task and he's been ruled by it for 20 years or more."

In a campaign in which there are few shades of contrast between the candidates on issues, perhaps the sharpest differences between Coleman and his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, are in their personalities.

Chuck Robb rode to fame, fortune and political success by marrying a president's daughter. Coleman did it strictly, sometimes defiantly, on his own. Robb is sober and almost unfailingly literal. Coleman has a wry, sometimes vicious wit, and an easygoing manner. Robb is by self-definition the ultimate establishment figure, a man who prizes consistency and responsibility above all else. Marshall Coleman, by contrast, has often broken the rules, both political and personal.

He took his first wife, Maureen, to Raleigh, N.C., to get married because her parents would not give their consent and Maureen, at 20, was too young under then-Virginia law to marry without it.

He ran in 1975 against a popular incumbent state senator and won, against the advice of GOP elders who warned him he was courting disaster. A week after a campaign in which he distributed brochures that depicted him and his wife and two sons as the all-American family, he separated from his wife. Two years later, he married Niki Williams, whose own marriage had ended at the same time as Coleman's.

In Richmond, state Sen. Coleman defied the leadership of the Virginia General Assembly, earning a reputation as a ruthless, publicity-seeking opportunist from some colleagues who were, among other things, so very jealous of his success. And four years ago he stunned Republicans and Democrats alike by first capturing the GOP nomination from a popular Fairfax legislator who had been handpicked by party leaders, and then coming from far behind in the polls to beat a conservative old-guard Democrat, in part by raising a skeleton long hidden in white Virginia's political closet, his opponent's past support of segregation.

How is it, then, that Coleman appears so much on the straight and narrow this year? The least flattering answer comes from political adversaries such as state Sen. Frank Nolen, a Democrat whom Coleman once defeated. Said Nolen: "Marshall is a clever guy who takes his stand according to whatever he thinks is popular." Older brother Warren offered another reason: "Maybe it's easier to be a maverick when you're the out party than when you're the in party."

Coleman himself explained it in part by saying, "I've got a very different opponent this time," but he insisted that "I don't think I'm a changed man . . . the conditions and times have changed. I'm not saying I'm undeviatingly committed to a given ideology but I think my record is thoroughly and authentically conservative."

Finally, there is a historical context. In many ways, Coleman's rise and transformation parallel what has happened to his party. Less than two decades ago Virginia Republicans were the state's progressives, critics of the Byrd Machine and the poll tax, advocates of racial equality and more state spending for schools, mental institutions and roads. Then came the migration of thousands of conservative Democrats, epitomized by former governor Mills E. Godwin, to the Republican party, making them winners but at the same time scrapping their Lincoln-style progressivism for Main Street-style conservatism.

Marshall Coleman, in that light, is perhaps the logical Republican candidate for 1981 -- a man in motion, once the outsider, now moving inside.

"Just like my dad"

The DuPont plant came to Waynesboro in 1929, setting off a wave of immigration that lasted throughout the 1930s. It was the kind of town where, as Marshall Coleman recalls, "They used to say if there was a general pay raise at DuPont, the price of bread at A&P went up."

One of those who came was William Warren Coleman, foster son of a rural Nelson County family, who became a supervisor at the plant, and his wife Marguerite, from older, wealthier Staunton, a few miles to the west. Coleman was a handsome, bright and engaging man with a keen sense of humor.

"I was a big admirer of my father," recalls Marshall Coleman. "Somebody once asked me, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' and I said, 'Just like my dad,' even though you're supposed to say Roy Rogers or whoever."

The car accident changed some of that. Bill Coleman spent months in the hospital, underwent several brain operations and when he came home, Marshall recalls, "He was much different . . . traumatized . . . for a long time, he couldn't speak when he was in the hospital."

The suicide left subtle marks on Bill Coleman's sons, Marshall, born June 8, 1942, and Warren, three years older, who grew up in the modest house on Bridge Street where their mother still lives.

"They were both more serious from then on," says J.B. Yount, now a Waynesboro attorney. "It made them grow up fast." It also made them more independent. As soon as they were old enough, both boys took part-time jobs after school and in the summers. Marshall delivered newspapers, bagged groceries and pumped gasoline, and earned a reputation as having a little more energy and drive than his peers.

"When we were climbing over hay mounds in Mr. Bush's barn," Yount recalls, "Warren and I were always willing to take some risks but Marshall would always go to the very peak."

After graduating from Waynesboro High School, Marshall attended the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville on scholarship. The university Thomas Jefferson had founded was still very much a gentleman's school when Coleman arrived in 1960. Coats and ties were the required uniform on campus; local restaurants were still segregated by race; fraternities ruled. While some debated politics, the big issues were student parking and the prohibition against drinking at football games.

"There was a social pyramid . . . campus life and politics was really dominated by a group of 10 fraternities," recalls Edward Hogshire, a Charlottesville lawyer who was a Coleman classmate. "Marshall moved in a different social circle. He wasn't part of the little U-Va. clique."

The politician was born in 1962 when Coleman became the first nonfraternity member in memory to be elected to the student council. The following year, he was elected student council president. As has often been the case during his political career, some of the candidate's supporters had a different idea of his views than he now claims to have had. Many believed Coleman was leading an antifraternity revolt, but he says, "It wasn't that I was really against the fraternities. I was just a scholarship student and they were just another expense. I had a lot of friends who were in fraternities."

Coleman graduated in 1964. His college transcript shows he finished 21st in a class of 458. It was the same year he chaired Young Southerners for Rockefeller, a position he now says was also misunderstood. He supported Rockefeller the advocate of federalism, not Rockefeller the big spending liberal. "Nelson Rockefeller to me was a guy who was talking about the states being restored to their original position as the doing part of government and I thought he had many good ideas," he says, adding that later Rockefeller "got involved in the big government syndrome himself."

Even then, friends say, Marshall Coleman was planning ahead. "Right from the start, he knew where he was going," says Roman Sachno, a Staunton physician and former U-Va. roommate. "The governorship was the goal."

Coleman rejects that view, saying he decided to become a lawyer simply because "all of the people I knew were going to law school." That summer he married Maureen Kelly, a Staunton girl he had met at U-Va. He was Baptist, she was Catholic and her parents did not approve but the young couple defied their wishes, driving to North Carolina to get married.

'An Average Marine'

He left law school after two years for the Marine Corps because, as his application for officers' school put it, "I want to go to Vietnam . . . I can walk well and like infantry best." Marine Lt. Coleman spent 13 months in Vietnam, half with the military police and half in combat, earning a series of mixed ratings by his superiors, one of whom concluded he was "a very average Marine officer." His sharpest memory is of the futility of the war. "The sad thing I remember was leaving Khe Sanh and the airfield was being blown up, a field we had fought so hard to get."

He came home, finished law school, and in 1970 moved with Maureen and their year-old son Sean to Staunton and joined a law firm. It was a general practice: plenty of wills, divorces and insurance work mixed with an occasional criminal case. He quickly earned a reputation as an aggressive attorney who won cases others might have lost. "He did his homework," recalls the commonwealth's attorney of Waynesboro, Charles Poland, a Democrat who opposed Coleman in court several times. "His cross examination of a state chemist from Richmond in one drug case was outstanding, the best I've ever seen."

But if the law was an interesting and productive field for Marshall Coleman, politics was even more so. The Maverick Legislator

The Shenandoah Valley had always been noted for a different breed of Virginia politics. Although the Civil War had raged through their fields, the valley's backwoodsmen had not been slaveholders or secessionists and, a century later, even its Democrats were known for their independence. In the late 50s, Staunton's two Democratic state delegates crossed Sen. Harry F. Byrd's organization by refusing to support key "Massive Resistance" legislation designed to keep Virginia's schools racially segregated in defiance of the Supreme Court.

By the time Coleman returned to the valley from law school, Republicans had made strong inroads into the area by promising reform in Richmond. "It was a progressive platform," recalls Del. A.R. (Pete) Giesen, who became the area's first Republican legislator in 1963. "We said states' rights was fine provided we also had states' responsibilities, because otherwise the vacuum would be filled by the federal government."

It was a platform with which Coleman felt comfortable. He served as chairman of the local party and managed the successful reelection campaigns of Giesen, Del. Beverly Roller and state Sen. H.D. Dawbarn in 1971. When Roller quit his post the following year, the energetic, articulate young attorney was such a logical choice to replace him that the Democrats didn't even nominate an opponent.

At the General Assembly, he is remembered as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal who opposed tax increases but voted for bills banning racial discrimination in housing, tightening the state's lax environmental pollution laws and placing new restrictions on lobbyists. He also cosponsored a bill allowing public employes to "meet and confer" with their employers on labor issues, an action he repudiated the following year, saying he had been misled by the bill's Democratic authors.

Maverick Legislator

Most of all, he is remembered as a maverick who refused to play by gentleman's rules because he always had his eye on higher office. The lobbying bill especially rubbed the leadership, and some members of his own party, the wrong way. It led House Speaker A.L. Philpott to call Coleman "untrustworthy." But it gave Coleman the publicity he needed and helped propel him into the state Senate.

"They hated the bill and they didn't like him because they didn't think he was sincere," says Garland. "The boy had a game plan. He had a scenario. He had no money, he was coming from the back benches. When somebody like that gives them the finger and whips them around, how can they help but dislike him? He's going somewhere and they're not."

In 1975, the same year his second son was born, Coleman took aim at Democratic Sen. Nolen, who had won his seat a year before in a special election by upsetting the favored Giesen. Coleman, who had never run against opposition before, beat Nolen handily. But while he was a popular vote-getter, those who knew him better did not always like what they saw.

"A lot of it was pure sour grapes, resentment over the fact he was young, handsome and successful," said William Bobbit, a fellow attorney and a friend. "The other problem was Marshall could never sit still for long. People would say, 'He's not listening to me -- I met him and we shook hands and while I was talking he was already looking over my shoulder at somebody else.' "

Some of the resentment also stems from Coleman's divorce and subsequent remarriage. By early that September, friends say Marshall and Maureen had agreed to separate, but not until after election day. She even agreed to continue campaigning, although friends say she finally reached a breaking point and went alone to North Carolina for a week. Nonetheless, brochures went out with a picture of the candidate as family man -- Marshall, Maureen and the two children. Their divorce was final in 1976 and less than a year later Marshall Coleman remarried.

Maureen Coleman, a school teacher who still lives with their two sons in the house she once shared with her husband, comes from an old Staunton family and politicians from both parties say Coleman's conduct in the divorce hurt his popularity in the area. The local newspaper endorsed Coleman's Democratic opponent in the 1977 attorney general's race, although Coleman carried the city.

For Garland, the episode marked the one time his friend took a risk, stepped away from the grand design. " Niki was his great passion," Garland recalls. "He had to have her, he didn't care about the price, didn't care about the risks. He was deeply in love. Still is." The Restless Candidate

Ed Lane recalls the first time he met Marshall Coleman on the campaign trail. It was in the summer of 1977, at a black church in Suffolk, soon after Lane had won the Democratic nomination for attorney general in a primary and Coleman had secured the GOP nomination.

"He was handing out this paper, and I asked for one," says Lane, a longtime conservative state legislator from Richmond and close friend of former governor Godwin. "He sneered at me and said, 'You've seen this before.' That was my first realization this would not be a gentlemanly contest."

Indeed it was not. The paper contained a blistering attack on Lane's legislative record on Massive Resistance and other racial issues. Later in the campaign, Coleman would blast Lane for alleged conflict of interest in sponsoring bills favorable to savings and loan associations, for belonging to the racially segregated Commonwealth Club and for supporting antilabor legislation throughout his career.

Garland says Coleman had been preparing to run for attorney general even before he was elected to the Virginia Senate. To get the chance, Coleman first had to capture the nomination from Fairfax Del. Wyatt Durrette, a popular Republican conservative who had been in the state party's mainstream supporting Ronald Reagan in 1976 while Coleman had worked for Gerald Ford. Coleman needed a strategy to negate Durrette's conservative advantage and he found one. He came at Durrette from the right.

"I raised the conservative question on Durrette," says Coleman of the man who now is his attorney general running mate. "Obviously if I conceded all the Reagan conservatives to him that was two-thirds of the party. I pointed out that I was just as entitled by my record to carry the conservative banner as he was."

The result was a bitter battle with the candidates accusing each other of being soft on such litmus-test conservative issues as collective bargaining for public employes. Despite a personal endorsement for Durrette from Reagan, Coleman won a narrow convention victory. "They just out-hustled us," says Ken Smith, a Richmond realtor who worked for Durrette. "Wyatt made hundreds of phone calls, but Marshall made thousands. There was one delegate from Richmond he called nine times."

Having beaten Durrette from the right, Coleman came at Lane from the left. "The lobbies and the special interests can afford their own lawyer," he told audiences. "They don't need one in the attorney general's office. The people do . . . . Anyone satisfied with the status quo in government is simply taking up space."

It was an unconventional -- "unVirginian," some said -- approach to campaigning, especially for a Republican. "It was smart politics," says Paul Goldman, a liberal Democratic strategist who worked briefly for Lane. "The question always was, did he do it because he believed in it or because he thought it would work?"

There is no question the Coleman approach worked. Lane, who had a massive lead in early polls, was put on the defensive and never did recover. Coleman won 54 percent of the vote, carrying seven of the state's 10 congressional districts and taking more than 60 percent in the highly populated Northern Virginia suburbs. He also won nearly a third of the black vote, an impressive achievement for a white Republican. And he became heir apparent to the GOP's 1981 gubernatorial nomination.

But the strategy had its price. In slaughtering Lane, Coleman alienated Lane's friends in the old guard, the ones whose support and wallets Republican gubernatorial candidates have relied upon for years. Many have since rejoined the fold, soothed by Coleman's more conservative tones in 1981. Others have gone over to Robb or, like Godwin, remained aloof, giving a perfunctory endorsement to Coleman but no support.

In courting the Virginia establishment, Marshall Coleman appears to have rewritten some of his own personal history. In 1977, he told a group of black ministers in Norfolk that he joined the Republican Party because of Massive Resistance. "The Democratic Party to me was the Byrd Machine and all the racial obstructionism that meant," he said.

These days, Coleman says Massive Resistance was "not a burning issue" with him. As for the Byrd Machine, Coleman says "I was basically comfortable with many of the things they stood for -- civility, honesty in government -- but I did disagree with the idea of one-party government."

One thing that remained intact was Coleman's sharp and disarming sense of humor. After his election to attorney general, he remarked that "the only problem with running for office is once you're elected, you have to serve."

Indeed, there were indications that Coleman had already begun thinking ahead to 1981. She denies it now, but three weeks after her husband took office in 1978, Niki was telling friends, "Marshall's already bored."