When politicians in Virginia talk about the highest office in the land, they mean governor of their state -- and no disrespect, mind you, for the man in the White House.

So it is that the thousands of Republicans who convened here over the weekend are raring to go behind the bid of their nominee, Wyatt B. Durrette, for that top spot. They were pumped up for Durrette's campaign even before they arrived, and cheered his every word from gavel to gavel. But the most influential figure in the party's deliberations was a soft- spoken, hard-bargaining campaigner who already has been governor of Virginia -- twice, in fact -- once as a Democrat and then as a Republican: and Mills E. Godwin got his way.

"The Governor," more than anyone in the party, was responsible for the making of one John H. Chichester, a relatively obscure state senator from Fredericksburg, into the party's nominee for lieutenant governor. It was Godwin, dean of the School of Disenchanted Byrd Democrats, who let it be known early on that the Old Guard wanted no part of J. Marshall Coleman, the party's 1981 nominee for governor and thought-to-be frontrunner for the No. 2 spot this year.

The message got through to more than enough party faithful that Chichester was not some distant new county but rather the anointed conservative candidate. And filling out the ticket as nominee for attorney general -- for reasons that hardly any convention delegate could readily explain -- is state delegate W. R. (Buster) O'Brien from Virginia Beach, who is best known as a less-than-energetic campaigner.

Godwin, who walked out of the party convention last time in protest over the party's nominees, likes what he sees on the ticket this time. It's right -- in every sense of the word -- for "the great coalition of Virginians who think like we do," says Godwin, referring to "that great army of conservative independents and conservative Democrats . . . who have voted with us in the past . . . and are so vital."

But how right will Godwin prove to be? Durrette is an able contender, and if his acceptance speech Saturday is an indication of what's to come, he will be a far stronger campaigner this time than he was as an unsuccessful candidate for attorney general in 1981. The question is how well Durrette can run with Chichester and O'Brien standing on his coattails.

Durrette has enough work cut out for him without any drag on the GOP ticket, since his Democratic opponent for governor will be Gerald L. Baliles, who beat him four years ago in the attorney general race. Baliles is slated to head a ticket of experienced state legislators who already enjoy respect among their colleagues and are skilled campaigners: State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder for lieutenant governor and Del. Mary Sue Terry for attorney general.

The challenge for the Democrats, in addition to whatever appeal the GOP ticket turns out to have, will be to get Virginians to think beyond questions of race and sex (Wilder is black; Terry is a woman) and to vote for another term of Democratic leadership. Their success may depend in large part on how vigorously Gov. Charles Robb works to leave a legacy of Democratic control in Richmond. So far, he's working hard on the stump for the entire ticket, as are all the party's most well-known figures.

Durrette, for his part, may have been a loser last time, but he didn't sound like one at the podium here. Not only did he touch all the conservative bases for the crowd -- lumped under a keep-government-lean-and-mean theme -- but he worked to separate Baliles from Robb, who is conceded even by Republicans to have been a popular governor:

"At a time when Gov. Robb is preaching frugality and level funding, Jerry Baliles is offering the same old national Democratic message of more government and more spending," Durrette charged, characterizing Baliles as a tool of the unspeakable "L's" in Old Dominion politics: liberals, lefties and labor leaders.

And all of this, Baliles suggests, isn't even right for a Democrat in this state: "Jerry Baliles would like the people to believe he is a reliable Virginia Democrat. But he isn't. He has more in common with the national Democrats, and he's got his own blueprint to prove it. The policies he's advocating, the approach he would take as governor, is the same kind of big- government Democrat approach that Virginians have rejected consistently for more than three decades."

Besides, Durrette reminded everyone, the majority of Virginians went in a big way again last year for Ronald Reagan, for John Warner again in the U.S. Senate and to send "more Republican conservatives to the House of Representatives."

Clearly Wyatt Durrette, like hi roaring supporters in the convention hall, is ready to take on the Democrats in a good old rough-and-tumble campaign. Baliles, Wilder and Terry have long expected as much -- and will have the next words later this week when the Democrats convene. Summer won't be dull.