Tonight, the Rockefellers are arguing and flirting. She pings, he pongs. He protests, "You've got it all wrong." She's just warming up.

There seems to be a difference of opinion about Jay's proposal to Sharon 19 years ago, The Proposal that led to The Wedding, a union of new politics and old money, where Amyn Khan (brother of the aga) was an usher and George Hamilton almost upstaged the bride by merely arriving, and where, for the very first time, John D. Rockefeller IV would be envisioned as holding the office that so long had eluded his uncle Nelson.

"Sharon likes to emphasize that there was a long period there where she was deciding whether she wanted to get married to me," the new junior senator from West Virginia is saying. "I don't remember it that way."

She rolls her eyes and settles in for serious girl-talk.

"We were on vacation with my parents, and he said, 'Can you' -- note the can you -- 'get married on April 1st,' sort of like he'd be available then," she says. "And I didn't answer because I thought it was an April Fool's joke."

"She has got it all wrong," interjects the senator, as if debating the significance of SALT II.

"Sweetheart, you have so totally made that up," he insists, clearly getting uncomfortable with the direction the interview has taken, but too far out there to retreat. "Talk about the brain going soft!"

"He came back 24 hours later and said, 'I don't believe this -- I have been called an eligible bachelor,' " she explains. " 'Are you turning me down?' "

"This is not the way it happened," he says, shifting in his chair with a look of mock disbelief. "This description is an assault on the institution of romance and I reject it out of hand!"

And then, turning to a guest with a broad smile, "Surely, you'd rather talk about issues?"

No one ever wants to talk issues when it comes to the Rockefellers. Sooner or later it always comes down to money and politics, money and houses, money and trust funds, and money.

It has been 18 years since Jay Rockefeller first brought his bride to West Virginia -- the state where he settled as an idealistic young volunteer in the VISTA antipoverty program, and later became its Democratic governor. It is also the place many believe he has just left behind as he ascends the national political ladder, arriving in the Senate by a small margin after spending $12 million of his own money.

Now the Rockefellers are back where they met, in Washington, a return that seems as natural as it does inevitable.

This evening, they are in their home of the moment, which is not the house, the $6 million Xanadu of an estate they purchased here following the election, a property that commanded the highest price ever paid in Washington for a residence, separated from reality by 15 acres of wooded bliss. The estate is called "The Rocks."

For the time being, Kalorama Circle, where ambassadors live and long limousines block driveways, is quite an acceptable rental for a first-term senator with a $69,000 salary.

They are a handsome couple. She in a white silk and lace high-neck dress, and he in a lawyerly tan suit. He turned 48 last week; she is 40. They seem as if they would be a campaign manager's dream, with their matching dimples and youthful enthusiasm.

The living room is comfortable and tasteful. There are two housekeepers in view, and the selection from the John D. Rockefeller III collection of American art is impressive, Eastman Johnson and Chiles Hassam. The three primarily orange couches are overstuffed and inviting, the desk in the living room is refreshingly cluttered, and the feel of children is everywhere.

Talking with them is like sitting around with two old college friends reminiscing about Homecoming. They are funny and irreverent, playfully teasing each other as well as a guest.

"Like our curtains?" asks Sharon, referring to the tall curtainless windows. "We put up that shade for you."

They don't much like to talk about money, though, or the fact that after the recent release of congressional financial disclosure forms, he has been pronounced the richest member of the Senate.

Nor is Jay Rockefeller particularly anxious this evening to discuss the dozens of social invitations they receive each day and the endless fascination people in Washington seem to have with him and Sharon, and their estimated $150 million in assets.

But he will.

Because one of the things that has always distinguished Jay Rockefeller is that he is comfortable with his background. "When he was young and single it would have never occurred to him that someone was after him because of his money," says Charles Peters, editor in chief of The Washington Monthly, who worked with Rockefeller in the Peace Corps 20 years ago. "If a young lady said she loved him, well then, by God, she loved him -- not his bank account. That's the way he is."

And those who know him say Jay Rockefeller learned early on to confront just about all the burdens, negative images and insecurities that come with being a member of one of America's most famous families.

Listen to him explain, for instance, how at age 27, he first approached his job on the antipoverty program in Appalachia, in Emmons, W.Va. (pop. 200):

"I took slides with me. I gathered everyone in the community center and I showed slides of my family, my house, my car, my father, how I lived. I said, 'This is who I am and I am here to help you. I come from a world that may be different but you'll find me serious and caring and wanting to help. You'll have some questions, but we'll work it out. I am who I am.' "

Or ask him if he merely bought his elective offices, spending a total of $25 million of his own money on four statewide races:

"That's like asking what would have happened if I had run on some totally different platform or had been an entirely different person. I have always run very aggressive campaigns. I have never been shy about the financial part. Resources are an important part of politics and I can join those who regret that fact, but it is part of the real world. You get into a campaign, you do what you think you have to do."

Or why he would buy a $6 million house when the state he represents has the third lowest per capita income in the nation, and the highest rate of unemployment:

"The people of West Virginia know I am wealthy. They have known that for 21 years. I really don't think in the scheme of things -- big house, little house, middle-size house -- it makes a whole lot of difference. What I do know is that it's beautiful and it brings me great happiness already.

"Again, you are who you are, the good and the bad. It doesn't work in life and it isn't comfortable in life to be any other way. If you have the money and you pretend that you don't, that's kind of dumb, isn't it? And who are you fooling?"

There are those who insist that Jay Rockefeller is using West Virginia as a steppingstone to the White House. In addition to strongly denying that he wants to be president, he tells this story about how he turned down his uncle Nelson, the one-time Republican governor of New York, who had offered him an early chance at the big time.

"My uncle knew that Bobby Kennedy was my last hero, and when Bobby was killed, he was governor and he got to make the appointment to that Senate seat," he says. "He called me in Charleston -- and it was about 10 minutes after Hubert Humphrey had called to ask me to make the second nomination of him in '68, which blew my mind in one direction -- then Nelson called and asked that I take the Senate seat. I said 'NO' immediately."

"I was running for secretary of state at the time," he says. "I was committed to West Virginia. It would have been wrong and inappropriate and presumptuous and 15 other things. But he didn't give up. He had his people call; he kept it up for 10 days. He just wouldn't take no. It's just not the way I do things. [Being a Rockefeller] makes it harder, but it's not hard to do. You sort of have to do it. I'm going to do it in my own time, in my own way."

In the way of public weddings, Sharon and Jay's was right up there with Luci and Pat's, Tricia and David's, Di and Charles'. She was the daughter of a millionaire Republican senator, Charles Percy. A public relations person was hired to handle the media.

And before they even faced the 1,500 guests at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in Chicago, the speculation sizzled.

"John D. Rockefeller IV said today his fiance', Sharon Percy, has denied that she said or even implied that he would one day end up in the White House," The Washington Post reported in 1967.

They met in a familiar way. He heard about her from her family, and he called her at the Republican Conference where she was working as a summer intern.

"It was all over after that," he says, feigning romantic smugness.

"Oh, was it?" she quips.

Friends describe them as a perfect pair, committed to public work and their four children, Jamie, 15, Valerie, 14, Charles, 12, and Justin, 5.

Sharon is an active board member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, having been unseated as chairman last year in a messy partisan battle. It's a job that has been long on headaches and short on praise and she says she has decided to go public with her criticism of the current Republican majority on the board. She's smart enough to know that her name alone will get attention for her cause.

From years of experience as Rockefellers, they both seem to have mastered an ability to minimize the negatives while developing positive public personas.

It seems important to them to be perceived as regular folks, which is why they'll unwrap their lives with just a little nudge and make an extra effort to dispel any myths about the name.

"If others are a little shy about it, you can feel it," says Sharon. "You've got to put them at ease as fast as you can and the best way to do that is to be as natural and normal, just simply as straightforward as possible."

"I don't see it really as that huge a problem," he says. "It takes a few minutes if you are talking to someone you have met for the first time. Some people have definitions of it [his name] or you, quite apart from what you or it may be. It's always in there as a factor, but I never really thought it was in there as controlling factor."

Jay Rockefeller was named simply "John" as a boy, his father giving him the option of assuming the full name -- John D. Rockefeller IV -- when he was 21. While he embraced the name, his oldest sister, Sandra, renounced it, dropping the Rockefeller in her twenties and using her middle name, Ferry, as her surname. Because so many in the family have felt the same burden, Jay Rockefeller gave his son Jamie the same option that he was given.

"It really doesn't affect the children that much particularly," he says. "Valerie just handles it easily. And Jamie has already started signing his name that way [John D. Rockefeller V.]"

"If they tend to be shy then it's probably harder for them," she says. "At some point we have told them they just have to find a way to deal with it and cope with it. And if you're too sympathetic and too sensitive with them I think they may suffer more. They can't change it and they should just be proud of it."

"Sweetheart," says Jay Rockefeller, a term of endearment which has come to signal his disagreement with an answer, "I think you're making it much too complicated."

There are some things, though, that are complicated for the Rockefellers, and one of those is the security risks for the children.

"We are always conscious of that matter, and we have reason to be, so we are careful," he says.

One reason for their concern may harken back to the murder of Sharon's twin sister, Valerie. She was killed in her bed by an intruder who broke into the Percys' suburban Kenilworth, Ill., home during Charles Percy's first Senate campaign in 1966.

"You never really get over it," she says, "but you can't live your life dominated by fear. What you do is realize that the unthinkable can happen. And you take steps to prevent it. But you don't want children growing up being afraid. They have to be free and they have to be independent. But on the other hand, you have to know where they are at all times. And it's much harder in Washington than in Charleston."

"You take things as they come up," he says. "If there are incidents, you show concern but not enough to cause them problems."

The Rockefellers plan to hire full-time security people when they move into the new house.

"I might say," he adds, "that I do not do a whole lot of talking about this subject."

Jay Rockefeller is known as one of "The Cousins," a name given to themselves by the 22 fourth-generation descendants of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil.

Unlike some of The Cousins, Jay followed the path expected of him, graduating from Exeter and Harvard, where he joined one of the more exclusive men's clubs, the Fly Club. "It never occurred to me that I would go anywhere else," he has said.

But through it all, he did seem to appreciate that he needed to step off of the Rockefeller conveyor belt. "He realized that [he] had to be removed from the New York-Washington axis -- removed spatially and intellectually -- if he were to keep from constantly tripping over his family," wrote Peter Collier and David Horowitz in "The Rockefellers, An American Dynasty."

In 1958, before his senior year, he went to Japan to live and study for three years.

"I knew at Harvard I just wasn't achieving," he told The Washington Post in 1982, "and I began to ask myself, 'What am I here for? What am I doing here?' About that time I got elected president of some club, so I had an office in some elitist building, and I'd ring a bell and someone would bring me a Bloody Mary and I said to myself, 'Uh-Uh! What is this?' I went to [a professor], and I said, 'I want to go somewhere where I can really do it my way.' That's how I got to Japan."

In 1961 he returned and reentered Harvard to finish his last year -- but skipped his own graduation. Soon after, he called his father and uncle Nelson to let them know he had switched from Rockefeller Republican to Kennedy Democrat. He was asked by Robert Kennedy to serve on the advisory board of the Peace Corps, and later as special assistant to its then-director Sargent Shriver.

"This was around the time when the Kennedys were putting a lot of focus on the problems of this country," says Charles Peters, "Michael Harrington had just written 'The Other America' . . . and Jay started shopping around to find a place where he could contribute. I told him, 'Come to West Virginia. I was born there. We have all problems imaginable.' I guess in the back of my mind I figured he had a helluva future and thought he might become governor."

Rockefeller heeded Peters' suggestion, and asked Bobby Kennedy to set him up in Emmons as a worker for Action for Appalachian Youth. His first attempt at elective office there was to the state assembly in 1966, the seat once occupied by Peters. It would turn out to be one of his easier campaigns.

Over the next two decades, his campaign for secretary of state, one unsuccessful and two successful gubernatorial races and the Senate campaign have been aggressive and high-profile. They have required all of his own money he chose to spend, as well as an army of out-of-state consultants, from media man David Garth's New York firm to pollster Peter Hart's Washington operation.

Says Bernard Aronson, a political consultant who has worked for Rockefeller: "People really tested him and wanted to see if his presence was just a marriage of convenience. When he lost the [gubernatorial] 1972 election, he took a job as a college professor in there, and demonstrated that he wasn't leaving the state."

His politics are often described as "slightly left of center," and "pragmatic," which is about right for his state. For example, on the abortion issue, he believes in a woman's right to choose, but is not in favor of federal funding for abortion.

Rockefeller's widest margin of victory was in 1976, when he was elected governor with 66 percent of the vote. His recent races have been tightrope walks.

Supporters and critics offer varied interpretations for the dramatic inconsistencies in voter reaction to him.

"He has a rap for not thoroughly studying the issues and, instead, just bombarding the state with ads and billboards," says someone who has worked for Rockefeller in West Virginia. "I think that he can be intellectually lazy."

"There is always some residual on the name," says Peter Hart, who served as Rockefeller's pollster. "But the other side is that when you associate the name in West Virginia, it is always associated with clout. So to the degree that there are the stereotype negative images, he is also seen as someone who, because of who he is, can make a difference for the state."

"This was a very bad economic time for the state," says Peters. "His dream was to do a lot more for West Virginia."

Despite a reasonably productive tenure as governor -- he built 10,000 miles of roads, removed the sales tax on food, and brought considerable industry into the state -- his Senate race was touch and go up until election day. Rockefeller himself likes the bad-economy theory.

"I consider myself very lucky to be here at all," he says. "There were a bunch of governors who ran for Senate in '84 and they all lost, except me. It has been very tough to be a governor in any state, whether someone is running for the Senate or not. In West Virginia, we had the worst recession . . . You had the administration cutting back, and so states had to raise taxes, which is not very politically popular . . . When the economy goes down, it just plain goes down."

It will be about 10 months before the Rockefellers are fully settled and into their new home in the Crestwood section of Washington, an old development of large, stately houses sandwiched between 16th Street NW and Rock Creek Park.

The workmen are there now. A tennis court is being built, and Sister Parish, the New York decorator who has worked for Jacqueline Onassis, is working with Sharon on the motif.

For his part, Jay says one of his aims is to keep "a low profile."

"I've kept a deliberately low profile so far," he says. "I want to get into the Senate business carefully and constructively and with a certain amount of certainty. I want to be good at it.

"It's quite possible to do it the way I want to do it -- quietly, with good, solid preparation. That's the way [Sen.] Bill Bradley [D-N.J.] did it. I admire the way he did it."

As far as eyeing the White House goes, John D. Rockefeller IV refuses to tip his hand at this stage, although he did say two years ago, "I like the speculation." Today, he brushes it aside.

"I am not going to run for it," he says flatly.

Definitely not?

"Definitely, yeah. I want be a senator. And I want to be a senator for three or four terms."

Does he want to qualify his answer with an "at this time?"

"No, I don't want to qualify it. I don't feel any need to. I like what I'm doing and I feel very strongly about the United States Senate. I am very happy with the way my life is going. I like the way it is proceeding. I like the approach I am taking.

"There isn't anything that pulls me to be president. It's mostly a one-term type thing. And if you don't get it, that's that and it's back to writing, which I don't do. So, believe me, I have absolutely no ambitions."