Curtis Van Carter thought three wars would have calloused him. But after four months "running around like a chicken" on the campaign trail in Northern Virginia, Van Carter has discovered there are worse things than combat.

"I've . . . seen some awful sights," says Van Carter, recalling his 22 year hitch in the Air Force. "But I'll be darned if anything ever got me in this condition before."

Van Carter, 59 who presents himself as "Van, the Common Sense Man," has emerged from an eight-year retirement to run as an independent for one of the area's 19 House of Delegate seats.

"I always wanted to play around in politics," says Van Carter, an Arlington resident who is challenging incumbent Democratic Del. Elise B. Heinz for the 23rd District seat representing both Arlington and Alexandria.

He picked a formidable opponent. Heinz is a Harvard-trained, Phi Beta Kappa lawyer with a reputation for doing her homework.

Van Carter's higher education consists of some physical education and business courses at the University of Southern California and Manhattan College. He acknowledges he does not know much about most Virginia issues and says his biggest liability is inarticulateness.

"If I the gift of gab, I could go a long, long way," said Van Carter last week, sorely aware that in the last four months he has covered very little ground.

"My whole campaign was based on getting my news releases in the medias," said Van Carter, as he sat in the living room of his north Arlington home, wrapped in a bathrobe and surrounded by stacks of newspaper clippings that don't mention his name. 'I guess I'm low man on the totem pole."

To some, Van Carter's independent campaign is a remnant of a political style whose time has passed.

"For Virginia, the age of the independent could be fairly bracketed between 1970 and 1973," says Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia, and the author of four books on Virginia politics.

The independent movement gained legitimacy, says Sabato, after Harry F. Byrd Jr. won reelection of the U.S. Senate in 1970 as an independent. The peak came in 1973 when 15 of the 38 independents running for the 100 seats in the House of Delegates won. Today there's only one independent in the House but there are about 100 would be politicians attempting to follow Byrd's example in elections around the state Tuesday.

"That whole independent phenomenon in Virginia permitted a transitory perch between the old Democratic Party of the Byrds and the new Republican Party which possessed the same symbols of cnservatism," says Sabato. "The independent stance allowed an old-time Democrat to vote non-Democratic for the first time without going through the painful process of becoming a Republican."

Even during that time, says Sabato, independents had little success in Northern Virginia because it has "the best organized political party system in the state, bar none."

Van Carter, who seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, is not considered any threat to Heinz by surburban politicians or Heinz herself.

His presence in the race, Heinz says, has left her in a kind of "limbo." She can't justify spending much money on the campaign, yet she is deprived of the appearance of being so strong politically that no one would challenge her.

"Elise Heinz has been very nice to (Van Carter)," says Michael Maddox, an independent candidate for the Arlington County Board who has shared stages with both candidates. "She could have eaten him alive."

"That would be stupid," said Heinz last week after the two candidates appeared before the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. For one thing, it would show I'm not a nice person."

Independent Van Carter says he has been frustrated trying to communicate his ideas to the public. Newspaper editors, he claims, have shunned him. And on what he calls the "civic association trail" he is never allowed more than three minutes to speak.

"You're up there with 10 other people and the audience is directing all their questions to the local candidates," complains Van Carter. When questions are put to him, he says, they are generally about state issues and legislation he hasn't studied. "I don't have time to go the bathroom, much less do research," he said.

That hasn't stopped him from firing off news releases out lining his stands on issues he has studied. One calls for a "Manhattan-type project" to develop nuclear-powered cars, trains and buses. Another suggests mandatory sentencing for all crimes "regardless of (the offender's) age. "He believes in passage of the Equal Rights Amendment ("They wear pants all the time anyway"), and placing Vietnamese refugees on their own American island ("Let them have their own country; their own way of life, a fisherman's ideal").

Van Carter's favorite proposal calls for legalizing gambling in Northern Virginia. "Let's get down to brass facts," says Van Carter."You can't cut taxes unless you get some revenue-producing money coming in."

Van Carter's own efforts to raise money have been dismal. "I went to all the applicable businesses related to my issues," he said, which included nuclear power associations, independent gasoline owners and highway contractors. "I never got a penny." He sought volunteers from political science departments at local colleges, again without success. "They all want to go with a winner," he said.

Van Carter figures he spent more than $1,400 of his own money, most of it on postage and printing.

"This politics thing has been a rough grind," said Van Carter. "It took a stubborn old Dutchman like me to stick with it."

Asked if he would run for office again, Van Carter answered, "I'd have to be crazy. I think I'd rather go back to my old life and do a lot of eating, sleeping and drinking. That's a pretty hard life to beat."