WITH SUMMER HAVING given way officially, if not mercurially, to fall, it is that time in a campaign season when the political analysts (and yes, editorial pages) tend to bemoan the state of the contest, whatever it is. Candidates X and Y have failed to address the "real" issues and instead either have drifted gutterward into personal attacks or have succeeded in anesthetizing any voters foolish enough to listen to the debate. Yet in spite of whatever you may have read so far about this year's statewide campaigns in Virginia, the campaigns have been reasonably lively and even "issue-oriented."
No one expected last week's televised debate between the candidates for governor to win a ratings race against President Reagan's press conference. But those viewers who did hang in there could find two well-informed candidates -- Democrat Gerald Baliles and Republican Wyatt Durrette -- with thoughtful answers to questions on education, transportation and the state of state government, among others.
But whether he likes it or not, Mr. Durrette has been getting some help he could better do without but probably won't -- from former governor Mills E. Godwin. It was Mr. Godwin, more than anyone in the Republican Party this year, who greased the convention skids for Mr. Durrette, engineering the nomination of State Sen. John Chichester for lieutenant governor. And now it has been Mr. Godwin and Mr. Chichester who have succeeded in dragging down the level of the GOP ticket's campaign.
On the day after the last TV debate, Mr. Godwin let go with a "Carry-Me-Back Attack" on Mr. Chichester's opponent, Democratic State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder. After a day of swinging through Southside with Mr. Durrette, Mr. Godwin complained that Mr. Wilder, among other things, had once introdued legislation to repeal the state song, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia." Mr. Wilder had argued that the song's references to "ole massa" and "this olde darkey" and other connotations were offensive to black Virginians.
Mr. Godwin claimed later that the remark was not intended to be racial, but other Republican politicians regretted what they considered the injection of race into the campaign. And Democrats were quick to add that this remark, coming on top of many Godwin references to Mr. Durrette as "one of us," was not at all helpful to the Durrette cause.
Mr. Chichester, meanwhile, has been defending his comparison of Mr. Wilder to "some lawmakers (who) have always had the criminals' interest at heart" during his tenure in the state Senate. By means of some convoluted interpretations of votes for or against various bills -- some of which had candidates from both tickets siding together -- Mr. Chichester has tried to defend his remark.
There is more to come before Nov. 5, and it will be revealing to find out where the level of debate goes: back to issues, or back in history to certain times that many Virginians may prefer to leave as they seek new state leadership.