Virginia residents will be voting in their first-ever presidential primary on "Super Tuesday," an event created in part by one of their own, former governor Charles S. Robb, but one that tampers with the state's electoral traditions and has considerably different significance for Democrats and Republicans.

Indeed, as presidential candidates flee the cold of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Minnesota, Virginia politicians of both stripes predict that voter turnout March 8 will range from low to dismal.

As reasons for the apparent political torpor, they cite both history -- Virginia's voters do not register by party and traditionally leave candidate selection to caucuses and conventions -- and the confusing structure of the primary itself.

In fact, as Virginia voters join those in 13 other southern states March 8, many Old Dominion political observers are worrying more about next year's race for governor than this season's campaign for the White House.

"It has ever been thus," said Arlington County Board Chairman John G. Milliken, state chairman for Democratic candidate Michael S. Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts. "I've been involved in politics since 1964, and presidential campaigns are always seen as a prelude to the governor's race in Virginia."

Added state Republican Chairman Donald W. Huffman, "In the rest of the South, the Republican Party is tickled to death with {Super Tuesday}. They think they're going to do well. But I haven't seen that much organization here."

Two Virginians have more than an academic interest in the subject. Republican candidate and former television evangelist Pat Robertson will be running in his home state, but his supporters predict a relatively poor showing.

Democrat Robb, one of the architects of Super Tuesday, admits that the plan -- a one-day regional primary to give southern Democrats a strong voice early in the candidate selection process -- is not working the way he had hoped.

The most confusing part of Virginia's Super Tuesday is the difference in meaning for Democrats and Republicans. Democratic presidential candidates will divide up 75 of the state's 85 delegates as a direct result of Super Tuesday balloting.

However, the Republican Super Tuesday race is a "beauty contest" that has no direct bearing on choosing the party's 50 delegates to the Republican National Convention. They will be selected in a series of local caucuses followed by district conventions and finally a state convention in June.

So while Republican candidates would like the public relations boost of a popular victory in Virginia, they have allocated their resources to states where primary results will affect delegate selection. Not even Robertson, who lives in Virginia Beach, is planning a major primary effort in Virginia, according to Ann Kincaid, his statewide coordinator.

"The wild card in our race is whether enough Republicans care about things to turn out," said M. Boyd Marcus Jr., administrative assistant to Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.). "It's really hard to say what will happen."

Super Tuesday also cuts against a tradition of voter independence in the state. In recent years, Old Dominion voters have been reluctant to align themselves with either party, and state law requires that all voter registration be nonpartisan. The state's long list of political independents includes former U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd Jr.

Occasionally, the parties have manipulated the nonpartisan registration system for strategic advantage: In 1977, many Republicans crossed over to vote in the Democratic gubernatorial primary for Henry Howell, a liberal considered politically vulnerable. Howell got the nomination, and the GOP won big in November.

For the first time this year, voters in the presidential primary must publicly declare when they enter the polls whether they want a Democratic or Republican ballot. Susan H. Fitz-Hugh, executive secretary of the State Board of Elections, said her office has received a number of complaints about the procedure.

"The notion that people are selecting a party could affect things," said Joe Elton, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. "There are state workers out there who feel that the {Democrats} who run state government may be vindictive."

The result is that Fitz-Hugh and others are predicting an unusually low turnout for Super Tuesday. In a state where more than three out of four registered voters traditionally participate in November presidential elections, Fitz-Hugh believes the primary turnout could be less than 20 percent. The most optimistic predictions run no higher than 30 percent of 2.6 million voters.

For Democrats, other clouds hang over the primary.

Super Tuesday was invented after the 1984 general election, when liberal Democrat Walter F. Mondale was trounced in the old Confederacy, and was designed specifically to increase the clout of Dixie's conservative Democrats in the choice of the nominee. Several party leaders, including Robb, reasoned that if they amassed a huge bloc of southern voters, a candidate who could rally the South would emerge.

So far, that has not happened. Democratic candidate Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee is seeking the mantle, but political polls offer only limited encouragement at this point and many Democratic activists have chosen to stay neutral in the race. In Virginia, only one of the party's statewide officials -- Attorney General Mary Sue Terry -- has endorsed a candidate. She backed Gore.

The only Democrat who seems assured of a strong showing on Super Tuesday is Jesse L. Jackson, who draws much of his support from blacks. Blacks represented 14 percent of the statewide vote in the 1985 election, in which a black, L. Douglas Wilder, was elected lieutenant governor with an estimated 96.6 percent of the black vote. One of the stated purposes of Super Tuesday was to attract conservative and moderate white voters who have defected to the GOP.

Robb portrays Super Tuesday as a mixed success, but acknowledges some failings. "To the extent that it has not attracted a particular kind of candidate -- {Georgia Sen.} Sam Nunn or something -- it has not been successful," said Robb, who urged Nunn to run. "My case" in arguing for a southern primary "has become a whole lot tougher, and I don't back away from that," Robb said.

Merle Black, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina and author of a recent book on southern politics, said the absence of a strong conservative candidate virtually assures that the Super Tuesday strategy will fail. "You have to have a message and a messenger," Black said.

Among Republicans, the man with the most to lose in Virginia is Robertson, who built his Christian broadcasting empire in Tidewater.

In November, Robertson produced more than 1,100 supporters for the GOP's annual meeting in Staunton -- a conference that usually draws about 300 party activists -- and urged them to make an example of his home state primary. He told them to "win Virginia, and win it by a majority."

But Kincaid, Robertson's state coordinator, is openly pessimistic about Super Tuesday. "You can't use the primary results as a barometer of what Pat can do, because the stereotypes {of Robertson as a televangelist and not a politician} are still there in Virginia," she said. "There's not a real strong embracing of Pat here yet."

Kincaid estimates that Robertson will get no more than 50,000 Republican votes in the Super Tuesday primary. If her prediction is correct, Robertson could finish behind Vice President Bush and Sen. Robert J. Dole of Kansas in even a relatively light turnout.

Others -- including Marcus, the Bliley aide who is also a leading Bush supporter -- think Robertson could do better. "I think he could show unexpected strength, particularly in a very small turnout," Marcus said. "Nothing has happened that is going to change the minds of people in Virginia about Pat Robertson. But who's going to vote?"

In the GOP caucuses, no one disputes that Robertson and his devoted followers will be a power. Kincaid heads a field staff of six whose sole task is to prepare for the caucuses. She confidently predicts that Robertson will win "a big majority" of the state's delegates and take control of the party organization. Marcus acknowledges that control of the party is up for grabs.

But a poor primary showing in his home state will renew questions about Robertson's ability to expand his base. "I don't think it's very broad," said Black of U-N.C. "And while it may have the potential to expand, I see no evidence that it has."

In interviews during the last several weeks, a number of Democratic and Republican activists sized up the candidates and their prospects on Super Tuesday. Generally, they saw no clear front-runner among the Democrats and considered Robertson's performance the key to the Republican race.

Democratic activists said that Jackson, who won the popular vote in Virginia caucuses four years ago, should hold his overwhelming support among blacks and that alone could propel him into first place. "Jesse Jackson will do well, regardless," Robb said.

But the toughest battle is developing between Gore and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, both of whom appeal to the party's conservative wing. Gore has bet his candidacy on a "southern strategy" and is the only candidate running television commercials in Virginia. Gephardt offers a blend of establishment credentials and populist rhetoric that, according to some party officials, is striking a responsive chord in the commonwealth.

"I think Gore is going to be disappointed," said a senior Democrat who asked not to be identified. "I don't believe the concept of a regional candidate is particularly attractive. I think Gephardt can play well in the South, and by virtue of his win in Iowa he has achieved national candidate status." Gephardt also won in South Dakota.

Among other Democratic contenders, Dukakis has been endorsed by a number of local office holders in Northern Virginia, where his New England roots are not considered a handicap. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois and former senator Gary Hart of Colorado do not have substantial organizations in Virginia.

Republican activists say that the most important question for the GOP on Super Tuesday is turnout. The smaller the turnout, they say, the better Robertson's chances get.

"I can't see George Bush getting much less than 35 percent of the vote in anything that's a reasonable turnout," Marcus said. "Most of the party establishment is going with Bush. And I expect him to do well in Northern Virginia, where turnout will probably be heavier than in other parts of the state."

Other party activists echo Marcus' assessment that Bush and Robertson have the strongest organizations in the state. Dole has been endorsed by Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. of Virginia, but has devoted few resources to the state. Rep. Jack Kemp of New York has support among some Northern Virginia activists but does poorly in statewide polls.

Virginia Republican Chairman Huffman is also trying to fight the Democrats' Super Tuesday strategy and keep southern conservatives voting in his party instead of crossing over to the Democrats, where their votes might mean something. "We feel like you've got a conservative primary and a liberal primary on Super Tuesday," Huffman said. "If you want to vote for a conservative, you have to vote Republican."