Republicans held the Virginia governor's office for 12 years before the election of Democrat Charles S. Robb in 1981. The number of years was incorrect in a story yesterday.

Four years ago, former Virginia governor Mills E. Godwin received a last-minute phone call from President Reagan, asking that he endorse the GOP candidate for governor of Virginia.

Godwin revealed the call last week for the first time, saying only the presidential appeal made him leave his home along the James River in Suffolk to join Reagan at a crucial rally for J. Marshall Coleman in Richmond.

"I was somewhat held back in my opinion," Godwin recalled, saying Reagan told him "it looked like the nominee . . . needed help."

"I did, of course, vote for Mr. Coleman," Godwin said in the soft cadence that characterizes his mannered Virginia gentleman's speech.

The new footnote to Virginia history was told by a now-confident Godwin, twice elected governor and a patriarch of state politics, who has assumed the role of elder statesman in both name and power. Not only is the current GOP state ticket one he needs no presidential urging to endorse, but it is one he and his allies had a large part in creating.

This year, continuing a remarkable public career that now spans almost 40 years, the silver-haired, distinguished Godwin is, at 72, vigorously backing GOP nominee Wyatt B. Durrette for governor and state Sen. John H. Chichester of Fredericksburg for lieutenant governor.

"This is his ticket," one political observer said of Godwin, who in 1981 made no secret of his dislike and distrust of Coleman by sitting out the campaign until the last days.

Coleman lost to Democrat Charles S. Robb in a Democratic rout that swept all three statewide contests, a victory that halted 16 years of Republicans in the governor's mansion. The Republican disarray offered Godwin and his allies a chance to begin wresting control of the party away from Coleman and other Republican factions.

Even now, Godwin has trouble saying the name of Coleman, who gained Godwin's enmity in 1977. Coleman, of McLean, was elected attorney general that year by aggressively attacking the segregationist past of former Democratic state Sen. Ed Lane of Richmond, a lifelong Godwin friend.

And in the world of Virginia politics, where bad memories are nourished for years, it was Godwin and other old-line conservatives earlier this year who helped block Coleman's comeback bid to gain the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor.

One Republican political insider said party polls have shown a Godwin endorsement generally to be a wash, with about the same numbers of people likely to vote for or against a candidate because of his endorsement.

Godwin, too, minimizes his effect on the public at large. He agrees his influence stems from persuading a network of lifelong business friends and associates who, in turn, influence others to vote and give money for candidates. It is a similar role that Robb as governor is trying to play now for Democrat Gerald L. Baliles.

Robb "has by and large had a successful administration," Godwin said, "but I don't think he can transfer his popularity to another." And, trying to keep a bipartisan perspective, Godwin noted, "Mr. Reagan campaigns frequently for candidates and they don't win."

To many, a nod from Godwin is the clarion call, a remnant of the days when Godwin was a legislative lieutenant and later a leader of the fabled Harry F. Byrd political machine that ran Virginia for decades and virtually controlled the nominating process for state offices.

At a recent news conference, for example, Durrette's deference to Godwin was striking. Durrette sat quietly behind Godwin, like someone about to be baptized, as the former governor announced a "Virginians for Durrette" group of conservatives and Republicans to work for Durrette's election.

But to others, the influence of Godwin is viewed with contempt. They see him as an anachronistic reminder of segregationist policies in a state that revered the past and feared the future.

"Anyone who stays alive in politics is lucky, to some degree," Godwin said of his continuing role that few other former governors have attempted. "I try not to bury my head in the sand . . . . Changing conditions bring about changing views." He begins to repeat a favorite phrase that he does not have power, he just knows people who do.

"Virginia is very different in 1985 from 1945," Godwin said, "or even '55 or '65" -- the year he was elected governor as a Democrat. He was narrowly elected as a Republican in 1973, a year in which Godwin is credited with firmly establishing the GOP in statewide elections.

James Latimer, a retired political reporter who chronicled much of the last 40 years for The Richmond Times-Dispatch, described Godwin's ability to bridge the social changes that have swept Virginia. "Mills Godwin caught the tide of the times, got out front and rode it to leadership," Latimer said.

Despite his general reputation now as a crusty conservative locked in a time warp -- for example, he coldly acknowledges that "everybody knows I have strong views on that subject," that subject being integration -- Godwin's career has been marked by dramatic contradictions and change:

*In the late 1950s, he was the oratorical leader in the state Senate for "Massive Resistance," the Byrd-backed plan to close public schools rather than integrate. Yet, in 1964, as lieutenant governor preparing to run for governor, he strongly endorsed President Johnson, who pushed civil rights legislation through Congress. Godwin even rode "The Lady Bird Special" train through archconservative Southside Virginia and got the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, a favorite whipping boy in this state.

*As a legislator, Godwin adhered to Byrd's old "pay as you go" government that limited state initiatives. As governor, Godwin is credited with a progressive administration that gave Virginia its first bond issues that provided millions of dollars for development. He imposed the state's first sales tax that funneled millions more into public schools he once would have closed and established the state's wide-ranging community college system.

"He'd resent the analogy," one political observer said, commenting that Godwin's administration " "was almost the Great Society of Virginia."

"The death of Harry Byrd freed him," said Latimer, who agreed with others that Godwin's second term -- from 1974 to 1977 -- as a Republican was largely lackluster, hampered by an era of state retrenchment, oil crises and other problems.

It was most notable, they say, for blocking the aspirations of then-Democratic lieutenant governor Henry Howell of Norfolk, the fiery populist who lost to nemesis Godwin by fewer than 15,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast.

Today, Howell is largely left on the sidelines -- he lost another bid for governor in 1977 -- by a more moderate state Democratic Party that under Robb found it could win with toned-down rhetoric.

Godwin said he always believed that Democratic Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis, considered the more liberal candidate, would lose, as he did, to Democrat Baliles, a moderate.

"I think Davis would have been the easier opponent," Godwin said.

Some of Godwin's closest associates are helping to run the Durrette campaign, including Edward DeBolt, a longtime political consultant in Virginia for Republicans. Bruce C. Miller, Durrette's new campaign manager, was the former executive assistant to Godwin's campaign adviser in the 1970s.

Many Republicans say Judy Peachee, along with DeBolt, is Durrette's most influential adviser. Peachee, a former assistant to Godwin who is known as a strong link between Godwin, Durrette and old-line conservative Republicans, is also a tough infighter and maneuverer. She is now the Richmond office manager for Republican U.S. Sen. Paul Trible.

Maurice B. Rowe, secretary of administration and finance in Godwin's second term, is director-treasurer of Virginians for Durrette. And J. Smith Ferebee, a semiretired insurance executive and investor who is one of Godwin's closest confidants, serves as head of Durrette's finance committee.

Godwin's own record of switching position on some major issues may explain why he has been unimpressed with Baliles' recent attacks on Durrette's consistency.

Now a Richmond lawyer, Durrette is a former Fairfax legislator who lost the 1981 campaign for attorney general. He then moved to Richmond to establish more support from old-line conservatives such as Godwin. Durrette has tried to confront the consistency problem by openly acknowledging that he has reversed himself on several issues that he championed as a legislator.

"These are not issues of such great importance in a governor's race," Godwin said.

"The difference between Mr. Baliles and Mr. Durrette is not all that marked." He said, however, that Baliles' affiliation as a Democrat "is certainly one of his major drawbacks."