Virginia's top Democratic and Republican party leaders angrily traded charges yesterday of nasty, last-minute campaign tactics in the race for governor.

Gov. Charles S. Robb, speaking at National Airport and at the State Capitol in Richmond for the three Democratic nominees for state office in Tuesday's elections, lashed out at what he called "silent killers," leaflets that attack the Democrats.

A few hours earlier, Republican gubernatorial nominee Wyatt B. Durrette assailed his Democratic opponent, Gerald L. Baliles, for "deplorable . . . desperation tactics" in a new TV ad that charges the GOP nominee sponsored five tax bills while he represented Fairfax County in the General Assembly. Both Durrette and former Republican governor John N. Dalton said the ads misrepresent the facts.

Durrette said he sponsored two bills increasing motor vehicle taxes to finance better roads, but said the other measures mentioned in the Baliles commercial either called for referendums on tax proposals or were bills that would not have resulted in any overall tax increase.

Robb, in an unusually harsh attack, singled out a mass mailing by the Springfield-based National Right to Work Committee that praised Durrette. Robb said the flier, which went to 50,000 Virginians, was "an appeal to basic prejudice" and an attempt to descredit both him and Baliles.

"I understand the feeling of desperation that overtakes a candidate when they feel they are behind and have to throw bombs," Robb said in Richmond. The governor did not directly link the GOP to the flier, but said voters should hold the candidates accountable for such material.

The mailing was prompted by an Oct. 11 decision in which the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that abusive language directed at nonunion employes by striking union members was not covered by the state's abusive language statute.

Republicans denied responsibility for the mailing and Dalton, in a telegram to Robb, charged that Baliles "has already fallen far short of the standards Virginians traditionally have demanded of those who aspire to serve them as governor."

Reed Larson, president of the Right to Work group, defended the mailing and said the letter was "not meant to boost the Republican ticket . . . we're nonpartisan."

He accused Robb of "trying to make a racial issue out of it" by noting that the governor objected to the mailings' extensive quotations from the court's majority opinion, which was written by Virginia Supreme Court Judge John Charles Thomas. Thomas, a Robb appointee, is the first black on the state's highest court.

"It just shows how scared he is," Larson said, blaming Robb and Baliles for not adequately supporting the Virginia right-to-work law, a measure that prohibits mandatory union membership.

Larson said the mailing, which quoted some explicit language used in the labor dispute, was designed primarily to raise money to appeal the state court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Durrette sought to pump up his supporters yesterday, saying his campaign is whittling away the lead that Baliles has in most polls. "If you have a lead, you go warm and fuzzy in the last days," the Republican said. The new Baliles TV ads, he said, are "a clear indication to me they need to stop our momentum."

Told of Durrette's remark, Baliles countered: "His momentum is in his mind. Mine is in the polls."

U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett flew into Richmond to appear with Durrette at a hastily arranged luncheon with about 90 Republican supporters. Bennett endorsed Durrette's education platform, which calls for merit pay for the state's schoolteachers, an issue on which he and Baliles have differed.

Bennett said Durrette's proposals for improving education "make sense" in an era when an increasing number of educational issues are being transferred from the federal government "into the hands of the statehouse."

Although Baliles and Robb have begun to speak increasingly of the "historic" implications of Tuesday's elections, the Democratic nominee also has been warning his supporters at almost every stop of the dangers of overconfidence. "We're proud of this ticket, it's sense of history," Baliles told a small gathering in Virginia Beach yesterday.

Throughout most of the campaign, Baliles and his running mates have played down the most obvious difference between them and the Republican ticket -- that their ticket includes a black, state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, running for lieutenant governor, and a woman, Del. Mary Sue Terry, seeking to become state attorney general.

The GOP slate consists of Durrette, state Sen. John H. Chichester of Stafford County, Wilder's opponent, and Del. W.R. (Buster) O'Brien of Virginia Beach, Terry's opponent. All three are white men.

Baliles made particular mention of the uniqueness of the ticket as he campaigned in the Hampton Roads area, where his support among blacks has been challenged by Durrette. The Republican has said he has unprecedented black support for a GOP gubernatorial nominee.

Black leaders there say that Durrette has picked up some support from blacks. "It no longer is considered a character deficiency for a black person to be a Republican," said state Sen. Robert Scott (D-Newport News). He added, however, that "no more than 5 percent" of blacks in his city have made that choice.

He said Durrette's endorsement by some blacks, including the Newport News Crusade for Voters, a dozen Lynchburg ministers, the president of Hampton University, and Roy Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality, has won notice in the press as "man-bites-dog stories."

Del. Henry Maxwell, a Democrat who represents Newport News and Hampton in the state legislature, said Durrette "has made some inroads" among blacks, but he dismissed his endorsement by the Newport News Crusade as "not that important. They are Republicans, always have been."

Maxwell, who also is the pastor of the 1,900-member Ivy Baptist Church in Newport News, said the Democratic team "can't be minimized. Not only the historical significance, but it speaks volumes of its citizens."

At a Wilder rally Thursday night in Newport News, an integrated crowd of 150, which contributed about $12,000 to the Wilder campaign, cheered as Flora Crittenden, a retired schoolteacher, spoke with emotion about "a cause that surely will be written in the annals of history."

Robb, who was introduced there by Scott as "a future president of the United States," said that a Democratic sweep Tuesday will "say once and for all" that Virginians "look to individual qualifications and merit" rather than race or gender in selecting public officials.

He said the Democrats' lineup is "a vision of Virginia's future; they are the future of Virginia."

An ebullient Wilder, who began his campaign last summer criss-crossing the state in a borrowed station wagon, added: "To those who say it cannot happen, they've not been there. They've not been to the people."