The Virginia House of Delegates today overwhelmingly approved a bill raising the beer-drinking age to 21, an action that reflected the strong grass-roots support the measure has developed in this legislative election year.

The 71-to-27 vote to send the bill to the Senate also was a victory for Gov. Charles S. Robb who has made raising the drinking age a top priority of his administration and waged an intense lobbying campaign last week to defeat several House proposals to raise the age to 19. The margin of victory was much wider than the narrow voice vote the bill apparently received Friday after an emotional three-hour debate on the House floor.

There was no formal debate today, but some delegates expressed private reservations over their votes. "I'm going to vote for 21, because I promised so many people I would," said one Northern Virginia delegate minutes before today's vote. "I don't like it, but it's just too big an issue to vote against."

Only two of Northern Virginia's 21 delegates--Democrats Warren G. Stambaugh of Arlington and Floyd C. Bagley of Prince William--opposed the Robb administration measure. They were joined by delegates from southern Virginia and Tidewater who branded the bill unfair, unenforceable and said it would be as ineffective as prohibition.

"My boy was killed by a drunk driver but I don't believe you can punish all responsible beer drinkers who are 18, 19 and 20," said Bagley after the vote. A Dumfries lawyer, Bagley originally supported the Robb bill but said he changed his mind after giving the issue much thought.

"All this bill does is punish a large group of adult citizens for the crimes of a few," Stambaugh said. "It's a very popular and a very simplistic solution. Now people can go home and tell the folks they did something about drunk driving."

Several senators agreed and said in interviews today that support for a bill to make 19 the legal drinking age is developing in the Senate. "I fear this is window dressing on a very, very grave problem," said state Sen. Evelyn M. Hailey (D-Norfolk), who said she favors 19 as a compromise age.

"The problem is that we have laws on the books that are not being enforced," she said. "Drunk drivers aren't just teen-agers even though I know the poor little saps are killing themselves left and right" by drinking and driving.

Sen. Thomas Michie (D-Charlottesville) said he will oppose the Robb bill partly because he doubts the validity of statistics showing drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 are more likely to be involved in drunk driving automobile crashes. "If we raised the drinking age to 90 we'd reduce the carnage on the highways," he said.

"What this would do is end up making criminals out of college students," said state Sen. A. Joe Canada, (R-Virginia Beach) who last year sponsored bills to toughen drunk driving penalties.

Some lawmakers speculated that the 100 members of the House, who have run for reelection every year since 1980, may have been especially sensitive to the state-wide movement that has linked teen-aged alcohol use to alcohol-related traffic deaths. Tidewater representatives may be feeling pressure from the large number of military personnel in their districts whose drinking off military bases would be curtailed by the bill.

Nine years ago Virginia lowered the beer drinking age from 21 to 18 as part of a national trend to extend adult privileges to youths who are old enough to serve in the military, vote and marry. Two years ago lawmakers raised the age for buying beer in grocery stores to 19, in hopes of reducing drunk driving deaths and keeping beer out of the state's high schools. Current law permits 18-year-olds to drink beer in bars and restaurants and forbids the sale of wine and hard liquor to anyone under 21.

"The drinking age will go up this session, no question about it," said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, (D-Fairfax) who has introduced a bill raising the age to 21. "The only question is, to what and how fast?"

The bill approved by the House today would phase in the higher drinking age over several years so that no one who currently can legally buy beer would be denied the privilege. graphics/photo: Del. Mary Sue Terry (D-Patrick), sponsor of the bill raising the drinking age to 21. UPI