One of the main issues in the race for Virginia's 23rd District House of Delegates "floater" seat, which covers both Arlington and Alexandria, seems to be whether it is an issue-oriented campaign.

Yes, indeed, says Tom Shafran, the 28-year-old Republican nominee. "We've had a hell. I mean heck, of a good time debating the issues and I'm proud to say it hasn't gotten into a personal thing."

"Piffle," says the Democratic nominee, Elise Heinz, a 41-year-old lawyer. "He attacks me constantly. But then it's not surprising that there aren't any issues because he doesn't know anything about them in the first place."

While there are, in fact, several issues dividing the two candidates, the most dramatic difference is one of style, and both Heinz and Shafran seem to be drawing the distinctions between themselves sharply as possible.

Shafron is the young vice president of Better Homes Realty, his father's real estate firm, and heir to a name that has appeared on the northern Virginia ballot before. Shafran's father, George, ran unsuccessfully against Henry Howell for lieutenant governor in 1971 and served as an Arlington delegate to the General Assembly.

An earnest young man given to immaculate three-piece suits and gold cufflinks, Shafran speaks with slow and deliberate sincerity.

Heinz, on the other hand, fills the study of her North Arlington home with a kinetic energy that keeps her constantly in motion - eyes, hands and long brown hair keeping pace with a rapid stream of words.

A lawyer who has spent much of the last three years lobbying unsuccessfully for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the General Assembly, Heinz has the support of the powerful political organization that gave Rep. Joseph L. Fisher (D-Va.) his start.

Following the traditional course of Northern Virginia delegate races, where the Republicans run against the Democrats and the Democrats run against Richmond, Shafron is accusing Heinz of favoring big spending and high taxes. Heinz, in turn, berates the General Assembly for not permitting the Northern Virginia localities to decide for themselves how to raise the money they spend.

They disagree as well in their ideas of what kind of delegate is best suited to the task of getting along in Richmond, which, many residents think, tends to treat Northern Virginia with the kind of benevolence normally associated with wicked stepmothers.

"We've got to take a look at the people we're sending down there," said Shafran, a self-described moderate. "I'm not looked at as some kind of ultra-liberal like many of the others are. I'd try to play ball the way they want you to play ball down there."

"He can't, Heinz contends. "No Republicans can in Richmond. Eight years ago we had four Republicans down there and not one of them got a bill through in two years."

Both Shafran and Heinz are running for the seat Ira Lechner gave up to run for lieutenant governor in the Democratic primary June.

Opposing personalities and political philosophies take the prospective heirs to Lechner's seat in different directions when it comes to the question of what they would like to accomplish in Richmond if elected.

Shafran sees himself as a watchdog on state finances and feels that "the word delegate after my name" will help him to induce business to come to Arlington, a central issue in his campaign.

Heinz cites "home rule" as one of her most important objectives, supporting the general Northern Virginia Democratic credo that if Richmond would only let the Northern Virginia jurisdictions decide for themselves what kind of taxes they want to levy, the burden could be taken off property owners as the major source of county revenue.

In addition, Heinz would like to be a member of the legislature's powerful Courts of Justice committee "so bad I can taste it," particularly because she would be the first woman to be a member of that committee.

During the last session of the General Assembly, a number of bills affecting women's rights come before that committee, which is composed exclusively of male lawyers. After committee members had turned most of the bills into shredding machine fodder, it was generally agreed that a woman lawyer on the committee would have enhanced the bills' chances of success.

But while both candidates tirelessly turn out position papers and press releases delineating their differences, they agree that in a year where the statewide races cast giant shadows on their own electoral efforts, it may be image not issues, that gets one of them elected.

"I'm tryin' like hell to sell myself to these folks," Heinz says. "You're up there at one of those candidates' nights and you realize that what you're really doing is trying to convey to them what kind of person you are, that you're sincere and honest and won't go off half-cocked on some crazy idea."

"For 70 or 80 per cent of the voters," Shafran says, "it's strictly name ID; they don't know anything about the issues. It's a personality thing - how do you meet them and smile, or how do you sound on the phone?"

It is the first time either candidate has campaigned for public office and both have discovered that some aspects of the search for votes takes a little getting used to.

"The bottom line I guess, is who gets out the most," Shafran said. "But, gee, one of the hardest things in the world to get used to is to be out in a shopping center and be asking for votes and to have some little old ladies come up and tell you how much they don't like you. At first, it's a little hard to deal with."