Picture the Southern sheriff: A 66 year-old man of generous girth who growls, "I'm a tough old goat," who promises that "going through the door of my jail is not a ticket to eternal life" and who calls his political enemies knuckleheads.

James D. Swinson of Fairfax County is such a sheriff.

While Swinson is not seeking reelection this fall, the candidates who want his job have found the sheriff casts a long shadow.

Democrat Kenneth R. Wilson and the two independent candidates attack Swinson at every turn, accusing him and choice of a successor of improprieties, cruelty to prisoners and administrative stupidity.

The chosen successor, Republican M. Wayne Huggins, has been forced to perform a delicate political dance -- separating himself from the scandal-ridden Swinson administration while taking care not to insult his mentor, the sheriff.

Huggins, 30, a baby-faced former state policeman who is Swinson's chief deputy, has called his garrulous boss "the best sheriff in Virginia." But in most public appearances, Huggins avoids all mention of Swinson.

Swinson, who over the past 16 years has established himself as the best local Republican vote-getter in Virginia's largest and richest county, used his political muscle to build one of the fanciest jails in the state. But since the jail was completed last year, at a cost of $4.6 million, the sheriff's influence has crumbled.

Investigations disclosed widespread misuse of jail inmates by deputies who put prisoners to work outside the jail as unpaid laborers. Swinson's chief jailer, John O. Feehan, used inmates at swinson's Great Falls home to pour concrete and later admitted lying about the incident in court.

The sheriff, however, suffered the most severe criticism of his career when three immates died last year after confinement in the Fairfax jail.

The three died as a result of medical problems they had when admitted to the jail, but their treatment behind bars touched off a controversy. The death of Donald L. Ferguson, a 28 year-old construction worker who died of kidney failure last December after a four-day stay in the jail, outraged the community of Gum Springs in Fairfax, where Ferguson lived.

It was later determined that he had been denied prescription drugs while in jail and was given sedatives for which proper records were not kept. He was shackled in handcuffs and leg irons and held for two days in a small padded cell where he lay amid his own vomit and urine.

Swinson, responding to questions by the county Board of Supervisors, admitted "some mistakes" were made in treating Ferguson, who died shortly after his transfer to a Virginia mental hospital.

Swinson compounded his problems when he told a reporter last winter: "Going through the door of my jail is not a ticket to eternal life. People have died there before, and people will die there again. It doesn't make a rat's ass if I'm sheriff or if you're sheriff."

The statement brought calls for Swinson's resignation and, according to a Democratic poll leaked last week, the sheriff's popularity remains low. The September poll, conducted by Public Interest Opinion Research, indicated that Swinson's protege, Huggins, would be defeated by a 2-to-1 margin by "his opponent," who was not named in the poll question.

In a question seeking a "favorable" or "unfavorable" rating of county politicians, Swinson was rated unfavorable by 36 percent of those responding and favorable by 13 percent.

All this, according to county political observers, means that Democrat Wilson, 46, a former Fairfax County deputy police chief, has a good chance of capitalizing on the disenchantment with Swinson's administration and winning the sheriff's job. The post, which entails running the jail, providing courthouse security and serving court papers in the county, pays $34,000 a year to start, and the salary increases by steps to $48,000 a year after 10 years.

But Wilson's chance for an easy victory has been disrupted by independent candidate Christopher Stokes, 39, a probation officer who threatens to capture many anti-Swinson votes. Stokes, a black, has campaigned heavily in black sections of the county and has the support of many blacks who have expressed anger over the deaths in the jail last year.

All three of those who died were black.

Stokes, who has attended most of the more than 40 debates and joint appearances this fall between Wilson and Huggins, has accused Swinson and Huggins of insensitivity to minorities in the jail. Last week, Stokes said Huggins shared responsibility for the death of Phyllis Sanders, one of those who died in a county cell.

Huggins has been named as a defendant in a $2 million suit filed in U.S. District Court that claims Sanders was treated in a "callous and indifferent" manner by jail officials.

To defend himself against his opponents' incessant references to scandal at the county jail, Huggins says he didn't work for Swinson when deputies were alledgedly misusing inmates or when the cement work was done at the sheriff's house. He also claims the three inmates who died after confinement were given the best treatment possible considering the jail's medical facilities.

Huggins, who has the enthusiastic support of a strong Republican organization, claims in public appearances that the county needs to build new facilities to treat inmates suffering from alcoholism, drug abuse problems and mental illness. More than half of the 14,000 people who pass through the jail each year suffer from such problems, Huggins says.

He promises to be an active sheriff and to lobby the General Assembly in Richmond for more money to build treatment centers in Northern Virginia for alcoholics and the mentally ill.

Democrat Wilson contends the job of sheriff is to run a good jail, not to run around asking for money. Wilson, who was known on the county police force as a strict disciplinarian, vows to fire any deputy -- including chief jailer Feehan -- who misused deputies in the past.

"I will restore integrity to the sheriff's department," Wilson says.

A fourth candidate in the race is independent James M. Seattle, 54, an insurance claims representative. He, too, promises to restore integrity to the sheriff's department but has done little campaigning and is not considered a serious contender.