On the surface, Virginians this week would seem to have little choice in the election for governor. Both major candidates are attractive young ex-marines with some government service and political philosophies that are clearly conservative without being dogmatic.
But the race between Republican Attorney General Marshall Coleman and Democratic Lt. Gov. Charles Robb has become a test of Ronald Reagan's policies in the President's own backyard, and administration officials - -including Reagan himself - have entered the campaign fray.
Since Mr. Robb is former President Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law, the contest has been cast by Republican partisans as ''Reaganomics'' vs. the ''Great Society.'' But there also are clear differences between the candidates on issues of particular concern to blacks. And with the race running very close as the Nov. 3 election nears, it may well be the black vote that determines the outcome in this traditionally conservative state.
On the important economic issues, the campaigning has become a matter of the candidates declaring themselves ''more conservative than thou.'' Both generally endorse Reagan-style frugality in government and less bureaucratic regulation of the type that annoys business interests. They both favor ''right to work'' laws and oppose collective bargaining by public employees.
Mr. Coleman, as a state lawmaker and attorney general, has gained a reputation for moderation that has rankled some old-school conservatives. In his race for the statehouse, however, he has moved rightward to accommodate the tide of popular sentiment, as well as the fact of running against another conservative. Being embraced by the President has helped in this regard.
cl11 ''It isn't going to do us any good to clean up the mess in Washington unless the right kind of candidates are elected to state governments,'' Reagan told a campaign gathering in the state capital, Richmond, last week. But the President also no doubt was thinking of the broader political impact of a Democrat being elected Governor of Virginia for the first time in 15 years.
''Make no mistake, whether true or not, Reagan's opponents would hail a Robb victory as a sign of the President's weakness,'' says former governor Mills Godwin.
Mr. Godwin symbolizes a shift in Virginia politics from Democrats to Republicans. He served as governor in the mid-1960s as a Democrat, then switched parties and won another term in the mid-l970s. Republicans have been winning converts among conservative Democrats ever since.
Mr. Robb is trying to buck this trend. ''I didn't marry Lyndon Johnson,'' he insists. ''I married his daughter.'' Still, Lynda Robb and her mother, the former First Lady, have been campaiging for the Democrat, and Robb has not disavowed Great Society goals entirely.
He favors the Voting Rights Act and postcard registration for voters, both key symbolic issues for blacks and liberals. He also supports an amendment to the US Constitution which would give neighboring Washington, D.C., two members of the US Senate (the District of Columbia is largely black), and favors a state holiday in Virginia honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
Republicans have been charged with ''racism'' in how they have used these issues against Robb. Democrats likewise have been cast as ''mudslingers'' in some of their campaigning. They make much of published reports that the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor is being investigated on conflict of interest charges in his actions as a state legislator. Observers call it one of the most rancorous and expensive campaigns for governor in recent Virginia history.
In the end, what is being painted as an important test for Ronald Reagan may come down to how (more importantly, whether) black Virginians vote. The most recent Washington Post poll has Robb leading by 7 percentage points, but the gap is narrowing. Blacks make up 16-18 percent of the state's registered voters, but they back Robb 88 percent to 7 percent for Coleman. Thus, the legacy of the Great Society -- or at least how it is perceived - may be the key issue after all.