TUESDAY'S DEMOCRATIC sweep of Virginia's top state elections is so rich in ramifications that armchair analysts can serve up any number of plausible socio-economic quasi-political historical explanations for why it came out the way it did. You can probably check "all of the above" and get temporary credentials as an astute commentator, too -- because the victories of Gerald L. Baliles, L. Douglas Wilder and Mary Sue Terry are as significant as they were sensational. But above all else that may be read into the results, top credit belongs to the voters of Virginia -- who seem to have done what their counterparts across the land try to do: choose the strongest candidates. In so doing, they also lifted a political curse dating back to the days of massive resistance.

The Republicans blew it backin June, when they gathered in Norfolk and left the orchestration of their convention and party ticket to the Spirit of Politics Past, Mills E. Godwin. It was Mr. Godwin -- once Byrd-Democrat governor, then a Republican governor -- who engineered a ticket for "the great coalition of Virginians who think like we do . . . that great army of conservative inde- pendents and conservative Democrats . . . who have voted with us in the past . . . and are so vital."

But a generation of new voters -- people who either don't remember or don't buy the old Byrd Organization line -- didn't think that way. They looked at another ticket pledged to carry on a newer tradition: the moderate yet progressive, steady-management administration of Gov. Charles Robb. They saw three candidates who had never lost an election; a nominee for governor who was a member of Gov. Robb's administration and a proven state legislator; a nominee for lieutenant governor with more experience than the last five lieutenant governors combined and a veteran legislator claiming to be "as Virginian as apple pie"; and a nominee for attorney general with eight years in the state legislature and 10 times the legal experience of her opponent.

That's how the Democratic ticket went to the voters -- out front and everywhere, foremost as Virginians seeking to be judged on their merits and, as Sen. Wilder put it, on "preparation, a good record, accountability." The three candidates shunned the old regional-issue, pick-your-pockets-of-support campaigning in favor of a state-unity theme.

It worked -- and Virginia can claim a place of leadership in the New South.