His political orchestra was fine-tuned right down to his wife.

"I want you to shake hands and smile incessantly," said J. Marshall Coleman, dispatching wife Nikki into the cavernous arena of milling delegates at the Virginia state Republican nominating convention here.

Coleman was on the prowl, stalking votes in the heated contest for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor -- his third statewide campaign in eight years. To the cadre of aides barking orders into crackling walkie-talkies, his code name was Robin Hood.

To Coleman, who in 1977 at the age of 36 was elected state attorney general only to lose his bid for governor four years later, today was a make-or-break chance to resucitate his political career.

As the long hours of the convention wore into late night balloting, there was a different Marshall Coleman shuffling across the convention floor, wearing shirt sleeves and a wan smile.

The entourage of aides steering him across the floor hand dwindled and his poster-toting cheering squad had lost much of its enthusiasm. Coleman's carefully staged operation -- the most sophisticated of a convention that embraced high-tech politics -- was headed for failure.

"Coleman aides have been on the phone three months," said Coleman aide Lawrence Herman, fiddling with his earplug, straining to pick up his electronic orders earlier in the day. "They know every delegate's name and their nicknames."

The high-tech Coleman army drew sneers from some of the opposing camps.

"I don't think that impresses anybody," said Fairfax County legislator Vincent F. Callahan, who cochaired the lieutenant governor bid of his colleague, state legislator A.R. (Pete) Geisen of Augusta County. "All that mumbling into walkie-talkies is just to make people feel important."

It wasn't that the other candidates didn't have their own vote counters, radio-armed aides and yards of posters and banners.

It was just that Coleman had more. "It's like signs at the polling places," said Rep. Stan Parris of Fairfax, who was a candidate for the governor nomination until he withdrew in early May. "Nobody is influenced by them at all, but if you don't have them everybody notices."

"Presence, you've got to have presence," said Coleman, planting a kiss on the cheek of a gushing woman delegate.

"The women love him," muttered one aide, nodding toward the youthful-looking candidate who will celebrate his 43rd birthday next weekend.

Hovering at Coleman's elbow was his 15-year-old son, Sean, who plastered a "Coleman" sticker on every delegate who got a handshake or a kiss from Coleman.

Both Friday and today, Coleman and his opponents traipsed the convention floor, tugged in every direction by the ever-present aides. And if an aide left Coleman's side for more than a minute, he looked around nervously, murmuring, "What's happening? Where are we?"

Aides to state Sen. John H. Chichester of Fredericksburg said they had sensed a weakness among some Coleman supporters. "We were going after Marshall Coleman," said Boyd Marcus, a key Chichester floor leader and administrative assistant to Rep. Thomas Bliley of Richmond.

Marcus said the Chichester campaign realized in the past two weeks that conservative fund-raiser Richard A. Viguerie's support was solid. "We determined that the only way to go was the soft Coleman delegates," he said.

Marcus said a key turning point came when Maurice Dawkins of Springfield received far more votes than any one expected, a surge Marcus attributed to Dawkins' rousing speech to the convention. Marcus also said that state Del. A.R. (Pete) Geisen held more of his votes than expected, another net loss to Coleman, who once represented the Shenandoah Valley in the legislature.

"Coming in second on the first ballot was an incredible shock," said David Blee, Coleman's campaign manager. "It completely demoralized our delegates."

As he watched his support slowly erode, Coleman said: "You always hate to lose, but being a lawyer prepares you."