Del. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), caught up in an energetic contest to replace Northern Virginia's retiring senior legislator in the state Senate, never misses a chance to draw his Republican opponent, James R. Tate, into a discussion of the Equal Rights Amendment or abortion.

Tate, conceding he and Saslaw are worlds apart on what the Republican call "passion issues," would much rather talk about transportation.

"I wish I didn't have to take stands on those sexy issues, but I don't dodge them," said Tate, 35, an attorney and former delegate who left the General Assembly to run unsuccessfully for Congress against Rep. Herbert E. Harris in 1976.

The Saslaw-Tate campaign for the 35th District Senate seat is a contest of political philosophies as well as service.

"Tate ran as a conservative in the primary, and now he's trying to project himself as a moderate," said Saslaw, 39, a real estate salesman who has been a delegate since 1975. Tate says his more conservative positions have remained the same since he entered the race.

Tate and Saslaw are seeking the seat of Democrat Omer L. Hirst, who is retiring after representing south-central Fairfax County for 16 years.

Hirst's legislative service "did a lot to put Northern Virginia on the map, and I don't intend to take it off the map," said Saslaw. He says his own record in the legislature has earned him the right to advance to the Senate.

"A good indication of how someone will do in the future -- and you're going to hear a lot promises -- is how that person has done in the past," Saslaw told a gathering of Fairfax County high school students this week.

He cited his own history of successfully sponsoring controversial legislation to halt a telephone rate increase, protect dealer-owned gasoline stations and reform juvenile law.

"And I support the Equal Rights Amendment, and I don't hide it," said Saslaw. "That's the difference between my opponent and me."

Tate insists he is not trying to hide his more conservative credentials.He notes that in the primary he mailed leaflets to every district voter, outlining his stand on 14 issues, including his opposition to the ERA and abortion.

"I'm just not going to have a major effect on the passion issues, but I think I can do something about energy, inflation and transportation," he said.

Speaking before the same high school audience, Tate said his priority would be to push for a commuter rail system tied to the Metro system in Alexandria. He said using the existing Southern Railroad tracks that divide Springfield and Annandale would reduce traffic congestion in the area and cut future Metro construction costs.

Campaigning hard in a district with an estimated 65,000 to 70,000 voters, Tate and Saslaw represent very different approaches to state government.

One of several GOP candidates to benefit from a personal appearance by Republican Gov. John N. Dalton, Tate echoes the governor's warnings against big government.

"If there's a way a problem can be dealth with, without increasing state taxes or government regulation, I'll work for that," Tate said.

Rather than continue the "disastrous" trend toward more government control, Tate suggests giving state universities money for energy research. He also suggests that tax incentives could encourage energy conservation.

Saslaw, whose campaign literature lists completing Metro and controlling inflation as his major concerns, said he thinks more regulation is essential.

"I think my bills did improve the quality of life in Northern Virginia," he said, "If I didn't, I wouldn't have put them in."