John Warner's sanctum inside the Russell Senate Office Building has the feel of an ancestral home. The 200-year-old roll-top desk, the antique corner cabinets and the reserved-for-owner leather chair all make the place seem less an office than a country estate, ground Warner plans to inhabit long after November's election. Nothing even hints that only a dozen years ago he was not supposed to be here at all.

Shedding his jacket, loosening his tie and propping up his feet to meet the press, Warner is every inch a man at ease. And with good cause: After representing Virginia for almost two terms, Warner, a Republican, is cruising toward reelection with only token opposition.

Virginia Democrats have dominated statewide elections for a decade, but they could find no one to challenge Warner, who holds all the high cards in the political deck. In his standing in statewide polls he rivals President Bush at his best. His campaign has $1 million in the bank, and he could easily raise more.

He is senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, a perch that gives him visibility -- he met last week with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and is a familiar face on the network news -- and influence over a vital sector of Virginia's economy, military spending. Senators from both parties praise his diligence. Even Democratic adversaries admit he's a nice guy and a formidable politician.

Which in Warner's case says a lot. Few people have arrived in Congress amid greater skepticism and lower expectations. Warner's election in 1978 was widely dismissed as a fluke, attributed to the glamour of his then-wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor, and the riches he acquired from his first marriage to heiress Catherine Mellon.

In some quarters Warner's reputation as a lightweight still lingers. Critics question whether he is smart enough for the job, citing a list of oft-repeated quips that insult his intellect. (Former president Richard Nixon, for example, remarked that being secretary of the navy had to be easy, because Warner did it.)

Some Republican colleagues wonder whether Warner is combative enough to advance the interests of his party and his president. And conservatives within the GOP are regularly outraged by stands they consider heretically liberal.

Such reaction doesn't affect Warner much. On Saturday, he held his annual Atoka Country Supper -- a bash for Republican activists -- and 2,500 guests dropped by his Middleburg estate to wish him well. Shaking hands and slapping backs in the summer sunshine, Warner basked in the good life, surrounded by evidence of his wealth, fame, social prominence and a campaign in which he is all but invincible. As he took his bows, only one question about him lingered.

If John Warner is so dumb, why is his life so good?

This spring, T. Timothy Ryan Jr. got into the worst political mess of his life. President Bush had nominated him to head the Office of Thrift Supervision, the agency overseeing the multi-billion-dollar bailout of the savings and loan industry, but Ryan's chances of getting the job looked bleak. The Senate had to confirm him, and opponents there had unsheathed the long knives. Then came a bombshell: Word leaked out that, years earlier, Ryan had experimented with cocaine.

Enter John Warner. "He basically managed the confirmation process for the administration and me" on the Senate floor, Ryan recalled after his confirmation. "He knew his fellow senators, what they were thinking, who to talk to, how to count votes. For two or three days when things were rough, he dropped everything else and did nothing but work on my behalf. ... If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here."

The episode pleases Warner as much as it pleases Ryan, who had served as attorney for Warner's first Senate campaign; "Had a lot of work in that one," Warner recalls with satisfaction. It also demonstrates the aspect of his Senate service that friends and supporters like to emphasize: Nowadays, Warner gets respect.

Or at least, he is taken seriously. While Warner clearly does not rank among the Senate's most influential members, he has shaken the dilettante image that accompanied him into office. Some still privately question his abilities, but most agree he has carved a niche for himself on the strength of his personality and purposefulness.

Senators, staff members and political analysts say Warner devotes himself largely to his duties on the Armed Services Committee, where he consistently supports large defense budgets and conservative policies. His particular interest is the Navy, which not coincidentally pours billions of dollars into Virginia.

From the beginning, Warner surprised doubters with his capacity for work. He spends hours in hearings and closed-door committee deliberations and is thoroughly briefed on the arcana of military strategy and arms control.

Primarily, though, he appears to be personally well suited to the Senate. In an institution that functions largely on tradition and camaraderie, Warner seems to have mastered the art of fitting in.

"He is an honorable man, a Virginia gentleman," says Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "He has been a good member ever since he got here. His only flaw is that because he can't possibly beat me on the golf course, he keeps throwing out this story that he beats me on the tennis court. It's not true."

Nunn says he and Warner share a deep admiration for the customs of the Senate's previous generation, men such as Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and former senator John Stennis (D-Miss.). "Both John and I looked to them," Nunn says. "Their way of doing things allows this body to work." Warner emphasizes his "strong reverence for the Senate as an institution," and praises meetings of the Armed Services Committee that are "done with complete dignity. No one tries to get any 20-second sound bites."

Like Bush, whose road to the presidency was paved with thank-you notes, Warner understands the value of small kindnesses. Turnover among his office staff is low, and former aides describe their boss as warm and thoughtful. Warner is cordial even with his potential adversaries; former Virginia governor Gerald L. Baliles, the Democrat who almost certainly would have been Warner's strongest potential challenger this year, has called him "quite able and affable."

'No Rocket Scientist' Others, including some of Warner's allies, have been far less kind. Since his early days in politics, Warner has been dogged by public suggestions that, congenial fellow or not, he is a bit, well, dim. And in many assessments of him, questions about his brain power still come up.

Warner got his first government appointment from President Nixon, and it was widely rumored then that his position had less to do with merit than with huge campaign contributions from his first wife's family. Nixon fueled the fire with his remark disparaging Warner. Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., a former chief of naval operations, wrote a book that dismissed Warner as a lightweight.

By the time he entered the Senate, his image was set. While other freshman lawmakers were unobtrusively learning the ropes, Warner was being pilloried in "Doonesbury," which referred to him as "Senator Taylor." He became the butt of almost as many jokes then as Vice President Quayle is today.

A few months ago, when the satiric magazine Spy listed its choices for the 10 worst members of Congress, it awarded a special place to "the Virginia Senate delegation, past, present and future," citing Warner as a contributing factor. This July, readers of Washingtonian magazine voted Warner among the worst in Congress.

Unsurprisingly, Warner is loath to discuss the subject. He says that early in his Senate career, when he was the target of intense ridicule, he simply ignored it. "It was such an exciting chapter of my life that they could have shot at me all day and all night," he says. "I was determined to succeed.

"What do they call the Redskins linemen, the Hogs? Just dig in like a Redskins lineman, come out of every game bloodied. Bull it out."

Some who have worked with Warner believe the questions about his ability are unjustified. Arnold Punaro, the chief Democratic staff member on the Armed Services Committee, calls Warner "extremely capable." Retired Adm. Gene LaRocque, head of the Center for Defense Information, frequently opposes Warner on defense issues and has appeared on numerous panels with him. "Frankly, I admire the man," LaRocque says. "I think he's one of the better senators."

Others, however, point out that despite his seniority Warner has never been the author of a major piece of legislation and is not a dominant voice in debates on defense policy. One former senior Pentagon official says Warner "isn't the smartest guy I ever met, but he works hard and is pretty much on top of the issues." A prominent defense policy analyst says Warner "is no rocket scientist."

Warner's fellow senators express less concern about his brain than his backbone. Some question whether Warner has the taste for battles with Democrats on military issues, citing the close friendship between Warner and Nunn. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) says Warner's coziness with Nunn "makes me and some of my Republican colleagues ill at ease, quite frankly. Sometimes {Warner} takes that a little too far." A former Republican official in the Defense Department says, "In my opinion, Nunn plays Warner like a violin."

The partisan strains surfaced early last year when the Senate rejected Bush's nomination of former senator John Tower as defense secretary. Nunn led the fight against Tower; Warner, the Republican best situated to defend Tower, did little in his behalf.

After Tower's defeat, while many Republicans were furiously accusing Nunn of unfair partisanship, some of Warner's GOP colleagues gathered behind closed doors and angrily dressed him down for what they saw as a failure of leadership on his part. Even after the session, Warner wrote a letter to The Washington Post, declaring, "This Republican trusts Sam Nunn."

Warner says he is concerned more about policies than party lines. "I see situations up here," he says, "where personal animosities and political biases can do great damage."

It's a Hollywood Life The story of how Warner got to the Senate has been told often, largely because it is as glitzy and improbable as a romance novel. Only a fragile and unlikely series of circumstances -- a touch of Hollywood, a tragedy and one of the closest elections in Virginia history -- brought him to where he is today.

Warner's early life reads like a conventional campaign biography: Son of a Washington doctor with roots in the Shenandoah Valley, he joined the Navy during World War II and graduated from Washington and Lee University. He served as a Marine officer in Korea, got his law degree from the University of Virginia and joined a prestigious Washington firm.

By the late 1970s, Warner had a lengthy political re'sume'. He had served as a campaign coordinator for Nixon, as director of the country's bicentennial celebration and as secretary of the navy.

But his best-known achievements came under the heading "husband of ..." Warner had dispatched his professional duties without incident, but had won little respect for his talents. His personal life, however, had garnered lots of attention.

In 1973, after 15 years of marriage and three children, Warner was divorced from Catherine Mellon, heiress to one of America's larger family fortunes. He had never been poor but the settlement left him wealthy. In it he acquired Atoka Farm, the estate that established him as a hunt-country squire.

Three years later, he became the sixth husband of Elizabeth Taylor. The New Republic summarized his career with a withering epigraph: "When the going gets tough, the tough get married."

Warner's 1978 Senate campaign was like nothing Virginia has seen before or since. With Taylor at his side he drew massive crowds. When a chicken bone lodged in her throat at a Southwest Virginia dinner, the incident became a national media event. The Republican nominating convention in Richmond that summer drew 10,000 delegates, the largest crowd ever.

But after six ballots, Warner lost the GOP nomination to Richard Obenshain, a longtime favorite of party conservatives. A few weeks later, the small plane carrying Obenshain to a campaign appearance crashed, killing all on board. Warner was quickly nominated, and after a rocky fall campaign, he defeated Democrat Andrew P. Miller by less than a half-percent of the vote.

Warner and Taylor surprised social Washington by shunning the party circuit while he concentrated on the nuts and bolts of his job. The work paid off politically but took a personal toll. In 1981 he and Taylor separated; they later divorced. She has said a major problem in the marriage was Warner's workload and time away from home.

Warner remains friendly with both his ex-wives. He spent part of last year's Christmas holidays with Mellon and their children. And he keeps in touch with Taylor. In February, before Taylor's recent illness, Warner went to the West Coast on Senate business and the two had a quiet dinner.

A spokeswoman for Taylor, Chen Sam, calls the two "wonderful friends. Many times during the year, Senator Warner's children and Miss Taylor's children get together. They've always stayed in contact."

After his divorce, Warner became a sought-after date and he continues to make the rounds. It's easy to see why: At age 63, Warner may have grayer hair and a thicker waist than in his Marine Corps days, but he continues to cut a dashing figure.

One of Warner's frequent companions in recent months has been Cathleen A. "Cate" Magennis, marketing director for a huge Loudoun County real estate development. Magennis, who accompanied Warner to the Atoka Country Supper Saturday, declines to give her age but appears to be about half as old as Warner. She shares his interest in horses and politics. She also declines to talk about him. "Private things are private," she says.

Warner apparently agrees. He and Magennis rarely appear together at political functions as a public couple. Warner calls her "wonderful," but adds, "Cate has her whole life ahead of her."

The Physical Embodiment Virginia politicians in both parties say Warner's good looks and impeccable manners have become a political asset with home-state voters. They repeatedly remark on how much he has come to physically embody his job. His bearing -- a theatrical courtliness that is a near caricature of Old South gentility -- epito- mizes Senate decorum. He maintains a seemingly limitless stock of expensively tailored suits. When he visited Panama shortly after the American invasion, he stepped off the plane in a white safari jacket.

Warner's public pronouncements flow in a flowery, vaguely anachronistic Senate-speak, laced with phrases such as "so long as I am privileged to serve." In January, he attended the inauguration of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and at one point found himself surrounded by a half-dozen reporters evincing no interest in him whatsoever. Pulling back his shoulders and jutting out his chin, Warner playfully demanded of his reluctant inquisitors, "Don't you want to hear from the oracle of Delphi?"

"Can anyone imagine John Warner not in the Senate?" asks Joe Elton, executive director of Virginia's Republican Party. "It's the perfect forum for him. When he gives a speech, you feel like you're in the room with somebody important."

Even by the lofty standards of the Senate, Warner leads a comfortable life. He divides his time between two homes, spending weekends at Atoka and most other nights at an apartment he owns in the Watergate.

On a recent visit the apartment was bursting with political mementos and keepsakes, ranging from model trains to horse country art. The living room, given over to a longstanding hobby, was dominated by an easel, brushes and oils.

"I paint still lifes," Warner says, holding up a small canvas rendering of an orange. "I find when I come home at night from a late session, I can sit down here and it's very relaxing. It's something totally different." (As for Warner's artistic achievements, one staff member says diplomatically, "He's getting better.")

Aside from family (Virginia, 31, John IV, 28, and Mary, 32), Warner says his strongest ties are to his fellow lawmakers. The Senate "is practically my whole life," he says.

"If you're not here on legislative or committee responsibilities, you're out working to get others elected. We have tennis tournaments and golf tournaments together. Old friends of years prior have sort of drifted away, and you just live and breathe this institution."

Finding the Center Warner has done a good job of finding the political center in Virginia and positioning himself squarely in it. Philosophically, he is conservative but not dogmatic. And he does not hesitate to desert the Republican Party or conservative groups when he feels they have veered too far right.

Recently, for example, Warner enraged the National Rifle Association by voting to ban some types of assault rifles. Though he usually supports NRA positions, the organization publicly accused him of breaking a campaign promise and generated thousands of angry calls and letters to him. Warner held firm and returned the NRA's $1,000 campaign contribution.

The biggest partisan blowup involving Warner came in 1987 when then-President Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork, a darling of conservatives, to the Supreme Court. Warner waited until it was clear that Bork's nomination was doomed, then announced he would vote with the majority not to confirm him.

Shortly afterward, at a state GOP meeting in Staunton, there was an angry confrontation between Warner and conservatives, who regarded the Bork vote as a litmus test. Neither side budged.

In fact, Warner is among the least partisan of politicians. He was the only ranking Republican to attend Wilder's inauguration, and has long been friendly with Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb (a Democrat, but a fellow Marine).

Warner's coolness toward his party establishment is rooted in his 1978 campaign, when he was not the favorite of longtime GOP operatives. Though he does not publicly attack the party's Richmond-based hierarchy, his distaste for it is ill-concealed. The Virginia GOP has recently experienced money trouble and Warner's campaign has $1 million in the bank, but Warner aides say he is unlikely to contribute substantially to any bailout.

When he first ran for office, Warner says, "I could not at that time meet the extreme demands {of many conservatives}, nor have I been able to do so in the ensuing years. I respect people for their views. I hope I can be accorded a comparable respect even when they differ with me.

"My views are neither extreme right nor extreme left," Warner says. "Critics say that may show an absence of strength of conviction on my part. But I hold my views as conscientiously as those on the fringe."

Warner's popularity has left conservatives with little choice but to get used to him, and activists who once savaged him are more temperate now. "I never figured I'd agree with anyone all the time," says Carl D. Bieber, principal of a Virginia Beach Christian school and a longtime GOP operative.

If Warner's strategy was to cozy up to moderate swing voters and Democrats, it has apparently succeeded. When Warner first sought reelection six years ago, he faced Edythe C. Harrison of Norfolk, a Democrat with impeccable liberal credentials but limited political experience. Warner rolled over her by a margin of more than 2 to 1. Harrison's drubbing was one of the reasons Democrats decided not to field a candidate this year. Warner's only opponent is Nancy Spannaus of Loudoun County, a follower of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche.

Warner has also fastidiously minded the details of public life, giving potential opponents few easy targets. His Senate attendance record is good. He does not accept honoraria for speeches or personal appearances. He travels periodically but not excessively at public expense. He gives back the controversial pay raise the Senate approved for itself last year. According to his financial disclosure form, he invests his money primarily in real estate, mutual funds and municipal bonds.

Warner says he can imagine nothing that would take him out of the Senate voluntarily. Rumors occasionally surface that he will attempt to revive the Virginia GOP's lagging fortunes by running for governor, traditionally the crown jewel of state politics. The chances of that, Warner says, are zero.

Next year, as a member of the Senate's Arms Control Observers Group, Warner is scheduled to participate in negotiating a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union. The subject brings out his most statesmanlike expression, the one that urges listeners to regard the matter at hand -- and the person speaking -- as serious indeed.

"I look forward to that challenge and to that work," he says. "These are some of the most important concerns we deal with.

"When this campaign is over, I'm going to be cruising into the upper 25 percent of the Senate {in seniority}. The best thing is to be quiet and go on with it."

In the clubby confines of his office, Warner allows himself a cautiously phrased boast. "You don't get into a situation like I apparently am in now by luck," he says.

"Without appearing too immodest, I think voters know a good bit about me and my career. ... After 11 years you're bound to either make a mistake or do something dumb. But I have stayed on the job and worked hard. And the voters have spared me."

With that, Warner flashes a knowing smile.