In a plush newspaper office adorned by bound copies of the National Review and a blue Chicago Cubs baseball visor, the most feared journalist in Virginia pronounces his verdict on Gov. Charles S. Robb.

"He's rather tiresome," says Ross Dundas Mackenzie, editorial page editor of The Richmond News Leader. "One searches the landscape almost in vain for the leadership that Chuck Robb told the electorate he would provide."

Mackenzie's perspective on Robb may not be unique, but when combined with one of the most ferocious styles in American journalism, the impact can be devastating. So it was a few weeks ago when Mackenzie, a 41-year-old product of Exeter and Yale, unleashed a three-day fusillade, blasting Robb for his "intensely political" decision to send his three daughters to this city's predominantly black public schools.

"It hurts, no question," said Robb of the Mackenzie bombardment. "It's rather unusual for the latter part of the 20th century."

Unusual in most cities perhaps, but not here in the capital of the Old Dominion. Mackenzie's crusades -- against school busing, black political leaders, women's groups, homosexuals, and most Virginia Democrats -- have been whipping up emotions for 12 years. In so doing, Mackenzie has carried on a News Leader tradition that has been helping to shape Virginia politics for decades.

Some Virginia politicians, such as state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, call Mackenzie a "Neanderthal carryover" whose rigid ideology and racially charged prose have helped preserve the state's conservative status quo. Many blacks here still recall the time Mackenzie referred to members of Richmond's black majority City Council as "monkeys" and the Council itself as "the minstrel show on Broad Street."

"He sets fires of fear all through his reading territory," says Norfolk populist Henry E. Howell, a frequent Mackenzie victim during his last campaign for governor.

Yet Mackenzie strikes a chord, particularly in the solidly conservative suburbs that encircle Richmond and among some segments of this town's Main Street business establishment. One unabashed fan is former Gov. Mills E. Godwin, who calls Mackenzie's editorials "eloquent." Another is Jeff MacNelly, a former Pulitzer-prize-winning News Leader cartoonist.

"If Ross thinks you're a jerk, he's going to say you're a jerk," says MacNelly. "I admire the hell out of him for it."

Partly because of the brass-knuckles attacks and partly because of his pulpit at the News Leader, Mackenzie has also achieved a prominence on the state scene that is probably unrivaled since the salad days of his famous predecessor, James Jackson Kilpatrick, the intellectual architect of Virginia's "massive resistance" to school desegregation.

Former Virginia attorney general Andrew P. Miller of Alexandria credits Mackenzie's editorials with costing him his 1978 Senate race against John W. Warner. And Mackenzie's surprise June editorial urging Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. not to run for reelection this year is already viewed as a watershed in state politics. Coming after years of rock-ribbed editorial support from the News Leader, Mackenzie's warning to Byrd to stick to his previously announced retirement plans lest he help elect a liberal Democrat stunned the state's senior senator, according to sources close to Byrd. It was a crucial factor, the sources say, in his ultimate decision to exit, ending 40 years of Byrd representation in Washington.

Not coincidentally, the Byrd retirement set the stage for this fall's two-man horserace between Republican Paul S. Trible and Democrat Richard J. Davis, a campaign in which Mackenzie already has begun to aim his formidable firepower at the Davis camp.

"Mackenzie is the most effective editorialist in the state and probably in the whole country in that he understands how the political system works," says William Royall, a former Republican campaign director and former press secretary to Gov. John N. Dalton. "He knows that a one-time endorsement two days before an election isn't worth much," said Royall. "He'll be out there every day for a candidate, hitting points, issue by issue.

"Of course, the opposition calls it a right-wing harangue," he adds.

Harangue is maybe the mildest word to describe Mackenzie's commentaries about Howell during his 1977 gubernatorial campaign against Dalton. Nearly every day for a month before the election, Mackenzie assaulted the former lieutenant governor, running lead editorials with eye-grabbing headlines such as "Henry the Tax Man," "Labor's Boy" and "Henry the Embarrassment." What the editorials lacked in subtlety they more than made up for in flair. There was, for example, this assessment of Howell: "He is a buffoon unredeemed by any noble purpose except to get his hands on the levers of power and high position in Virginia."

The following year, Mackenzie was only slightly more subdued in the Warner-Miller race. "It was sort of like Chinese water torture," recalls Miller, now a Washington lawyer. "It was the repetitive effect, day after day, which any psychologist will tell you has an impact."

Although fueled by his intense political commitment, Mackenzie's aggressive style is also a product of a personality colleagues describe as "absolutely fearless."

A towering figure with a balding pate and booming baritone voice, Mackenzie is a man of seemingly inexhaustible energy: He devours Greek and Roman classics in the evenings ("Plato, Aristotle and Cicero," he says) and handball opponents in the afternoons. An engaging raconteur on the Richmond social circuit, he serves--along with his publisher, J. Stewart Bryan III -- on the membership committee of the Commonwealth Club, the all-white male bastion of the city's Main Street elite.

Around the News Leader, Mackenzie also has a reputation for blunt talk and a sort of swaggering outdoorsman's machismo. Friends tell how he once apprehended an intruder at his rural Goochland County home with a baseball bat.

"I'm essentially an ecumenical guy," says Mackenzie.

Mackenzie's political impact is no doubt magnified by the unique role that The News Leader has played in Virginia history. With a circulation of 112,000, it is the smaller, afternoon product of the Richmond Newspapers Inc. -- a monopoly enterprise that has been controlled for most of the century by the family of 76-year-old David Tennant Bryan, the father of Stewart, and a white-haired, courtly linchpin of the Virginia aristocracy. (The two Richmond papers -- the News Leader and the morning Times-Dispatch -- are also the flagships of Media General Inc., a $366 million-a-year communications conglomerate founded by Tennent Bryan, which recently won the Fairfax County cable television franchise.)

Although it lacks the extensive news staff and statewide reach of its morning counterpart, The News Leader has long had the more widely noticed and zestier editorial page. For more than a third of a century, from 1914 to 1949, the page was lorded over by Douglas Southall Freeman, the Pulitzer-prize-winning historian who, when he wasn't lionizing the Byrd organization in print, wrote landmark biographies of Robert E. Lee and George Washington. Upon Freeman's retirement, Bryan promoted Kilpatrick, a young, impulsive Oklahahoma native known for his brilliant writing and combative personality. The page was transformed.

"I really batted them out," recalled Kilpatrick. "You know Freeman was immensely respected and authoritative. He would set out to correct the City Council from their folly. I would be more likely to write: "those dunderheads."

"Those were great and glorious days," he said.

The glory for Kilpatrick reached its peak during the late fall of 1955 and early winter of 1956. The state's political leaders were up in arms over the recent Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education and passions were at a fevered pitch. It was then that Kilpatrick exhumed the century-old doctrine of "interposition," a theory that held that the state had the right to "interpose" its sovereignty between itself and the federal government. In a three-month editorial campaign that took the state by storm, Kilpatrick championed the doctrine and sold it to the General Assembly and Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. Thus was born "massive resistance," the movement that blocked school integration in Virginia for the rest of the decade.

"The News Leader was the intellectual leadership of massive resistance," said Kilpatrick. "No apologies for it."

Kilpatrick's argument that massive resistance was a constitutional, rather than racist, position has never washed with Virginia's black community, one reason distrust of the newspaper continues to run so deep there.

"One of the first things I did when I became editor," says Ross Mackenzie, "is to repudiate massive resistance . . . I'm not a segregationist."

Many of Virginia's black leaders, however, are convinced the spirit of Kilpatrick lives on. Much of the animosity toward The News Leader in Richmond, now about 51 percent black, stems from Mackenzie's hostility to the black government that took control of City Hall in 1977 and elected veteran civil rights lawyer Henry Marsh as mayor.

For the next five years, Mackenzie was relentless in his criticism of Marsh, trumpeting alleged mayoral misdoings one year in a continuing series called "Marshgate." On the eve of the city's 1980 elections, while endorsing an all-white slate, the paper summarized the first three years of black rule with this notable litany: "Ineptitude. Embarrassment. Polarization. Duplicity. Skullduggery. Bickering. Recrimination."

"No matter what the social or political issue is," says Jack Gravely, executive director of the Virginia NAACP, "it always boils down to one thing -- everything white is right and everything black is wrong."

"I like Ross, and he's smart as a devil," adds former Republican governor Linwood Holton. "But he's a rascist, really."

Mackenzie resents the suggestion. "I just don't think that way," he says. "We've used the term 'monkeys' to refer to the Council members. But that's not intended as racial. That's just a phrase I use: 'monkey business.' We've said the same thing about the all-white Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors."

Then there was the paper's comparison of the black-run Council to a "minstrel show."

"Have you ever seen a minstrel show?" he asks. "That has to do with the obedience of the minstels sitting in rows behind the interlocutor . . . . It had to do with the obedience aspect rather than the racial aspect."

As Mackenzie sees it, blacks on the Council, and Marsh in particular, played by a "double standard," shouting rascism at whites who opposed them while using their power to further exclusively black interests. For his own part, Mackenzie says he has "an open door" to blacks.

"I had lunch with Henry," he says, citing an example. "We had a nice lunch."

According to Marsh, the lunch grew out of a Chamber of Commerce symposium last year on racial friction in Richmond at which young community leaders had jumped all over Mackenzie for his editorials. The usually unflappable editor appeared taken aback, Marsh said, and later invited him to lunch at Le Chef's Restaurant near the Capitol. The lunch, says Marsh, was pleasant enough, but the tone and tenor of Mackenzie's editorials continued as before.

"I'm not sure he didn't have lunch with me so he could tell people he had lunch with me," says Marsh, who was ousted as mayor with Mackenzie's blessing in July.

Southern-style race prejudice is not what one would associate with Mackenzie's background. The son of a wealthy suburban Chicago surgeon, Mackenzie joined a burgeoning conservative movement at Yale in the early 1960s, influenced primarily, he says, by the writings of William F. Buckley Jr. and Whittaker Chambers. As a columnist for the Yale Daily News, Mackenzie expounded the conservative causes of the day, advocating an invasion of Castro's Cuba and chastizing the Kennedy administration for failing to pursue domestic Communists.

"Everybody always expected that Ross would be a national voice for conservatism," said David Gergen, White House communications director, who served with Mackenzie at the Daily News.

As a summer intern at National Review in 1961, Mackenzie did research for Buckley's book, "The Committee and Its Critics," defending the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. After graduating from Yale two years later, he enrolled at the University of Chicago where he earned a master's degree in political philosophy. But Buckley remembered his young acolyte. When Kilpatrick was looking for an editorial assistant in 1964, the National Review editor recommended Mackenzie.

"I came here because of Kilpatrick, because of his craftsmanship," says Mackenzie.

Through his various crusades, Mackenzie has been given a virtual free hand from his publishers, first Tennant Bryan and, since Jan. 1, 1978, his 44-year-old son Stewart. "The editorials are my responsibility," says Stewart. "But it's Ross' page."

Yet there are signs that there are at least some at the Richmond newspapers who can find Mackenzie hard to take. The spectacle of The News Leader recently criticizing the governor for sending his children to public schools prompted the more subdued editorial writers at the morning Times-Dispatch to register a rare dissent.

Mackenzie had used the Robb decision to launch into another of his many attacks on busing. Ironically, he compared Robb unfavorably with Holton who, 12 years earlier, during the controversy over busing, had won national publicity by personally escorting his 13-year-old daughter to an integrated school near the Executive Mansion.

Robb, wrote Mackenzie, had failed to do what Holton did. Instead, he bypassed the schools in the State Capitol attendance zone and sent his daughters to three schools in Richmond's West End. (All of them are 83 percent or more black.) Mackenzie, who sends his two boys to a private school that is 96 percent white, argued that the key issue was "freedom of choice" -- Robb exercising a unique privilege as governor that is denied to all other parents because of a compulsory busing order.

Nobody enjoyed this more than Linwood Holton. "We were at the beach laughing with my kids when we read those editorials," he says, "because we remembered how Ross had jumped all over me over the schools. He had been as vicious to me as he was to Robb."

It was then, says Holton, that he offered his children this assessment of Mackenzie:

"When the last train pulling the United States into the 21st century goes by," said Holton, "you'll be able to look at the last unit of that train and it will be labeled The News Leader.

"And up there in a cupola on the last car, leaning out the window with a bullhorn will be Ross Mackenzie, yelling . . . 'Watch out for Communists and black people."