It is shortly after sunrise on Saturday morning.

Most sensible folks are still in bed.

But in the shadow of the Arlington Courthouse, throngs of people carrying wicker baskets and dragging along bleary-eyed children are shopping for produce at a parking-lot farmers' market.

In the heart of the crowd, dressed in a gray pinstripe suit -- presumably for a law school dedication three hours later -- is Rep. Joseph L. Fisher (D-Va.).

Fisher is running -- or better yet, walking -- for his fourth term in Congress, and his campaign manner is one of quite self-assurance.

Fisher lingers at a honey stand to talk with the beekeeper who has already told him she lives outside of Fisher's 10th Congressional District. Still, even though there will not be a vote here, Fisher keeps chatting.

"I used to keep bees when I was a boy," muses Fisher, fingering a jar of tulip poplar honey. "Well, probably someone else actually took care of them but let me think I was doing the work."

Then it's on to the next stand and group of shoppers -- and the leisurely pace continues.

Fisher doesn't believe in whirlwind campaigning -- dashing through crowds in an attempt to bump into as many voters as possible.

He moves slowly, taking time to catch a name or to tell a joke. He searches his memory until he can remember the name of someone who called him with a problem last year, and thanks a woman who volunteered for his 1978 campaign.

But don't let Joe Fisher's appearance fool you.

The same mild-mannered politician who has been described in press accounts as "grandfatherly" and "intellectual" says he loves a good fight. Maybe he is recalling his brief career as a semi-pro boxer.

"Sure, I'd love to slug it out that way," Fisher responds enthusiastically when asked if he would like to meet Republican opponent Frank Wolf in the ring.

Although Fisher hung up his gloves 40 years ago, that fiercely competitive nature which saw him through several tough boxing matches and three hotly contested campaigns is still alive.

Fisher, who is 66, continues to play competitive tennis -- he was once the the men's champion in Arlington. Last year, with a partner, he took a second place in the two-man kayak class in the Potomac River Whitewater Race.

"Boy, that was something," Fisher said with a smile, recalling the grueling seven-mile course.

But for the past six years, Fisher's favorite kind of race has been the political campaign.

"I'm a competitive guy," Fisher said last week as he took time out from Congress to perch on a wall behind the Capitol and discuss the current campaign. "I like the competition of a good campaign. It's fun, it's stimulating, it keeps the adrenalin flowing and keeps you sharp."

Fisher's campaign style has changed little since 1974 when he shocked area Republicans by unseating Joel T. Broyhill, who had been in office for 22 years. Two years later, Fisher defeated Republican Vince Callahan, and in 1978 beat a then relatively unknown attorney, Frank Wolf.

Wolf reportedly set area records for the amount of money spent on that unsuccessful 1978 bid and already has raised $170,000 this year. Fisher has raised $107,000, and for the first time is planning to buy television time, which was uncommon in Northern Virginia's congressional races until Wolf used the medium in 1978.

The issue of campaign financing is a sore spot between the two candidates.

Fisher says he is proud that he keeps his campaign contributions from special interest groups limited to 20 percent of the total finances.

Wolf's campaign staff claims most of its money comes from private individuals, but Wolf's special interest group file appears to be at least 10 times thicker than Fisher's and includes contributions from at least 11 major oil companies and several right-wing groups.

"I try to keep 80 to 85 percent of my money from individuals, nearly all living with the district," Fisher says.

Fisher gets most of his special interest money from the political action committees of labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO, Railway Clerks Association, Rural Letter Carriers Association and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

"I do well with the groups that don't have much money," Fisher jokes. "But that's okay. I'll take the working people and give him the heads of big business -- not all to them of course."

While Fisher is reluctant to discuss his opponent during an interview, he finds it difficult to respond to Wolf's attacks on his voting record without alluding to his challenger.

"I did some rough calculations and figured that in 17 years in public office, I've cast about 50,000 votes," Fisher said, glancing back over his shoulder to see if the warning light was on in the Capitol, signifying another vote was about to be taken. "There's no subject I haven't voted on.

"I'm sure if you go back through the years, you can find something I've changed my vote on -- I'm sure my opponent will," Fisher said, shaking his head and laughing. "But what's wrong with that? Do the voters want someone who never changes his mind?"

Fisher observes that Wolf, who has never held an elected office, has no voting record to hold up for scrutiny.

"I can't debate him on the past because he has no record -- none, zilch," Fisher says. "It's difficult to understand why he doesn't run for the county board or something, that's what I did . . . but he seems to want to crash right in at the top."

The only time Fisher seems outright annoyed with his opponent is when reminded that Wolf is still complaining publicly about the difficulties of running against an incumbent.

"He's always crying," says a exasperated Fisher. "I ran against an incumbent and I didn't carry on in that manner.

"I just carried out a campaign -- and beat him."