In Northern Virginia's 10th Congressional District, this is the story of how an issue that isn't can often dominate a political race and stymie candidates and voters alike.

Joseph L. Fisher, Northern Virginia's 10th District incumbent Democratic congressman, was finishing a typically light lunch of vegetable soup and salad in the House dining room when the familiar ringing bell and flashing light summoned him to a rollcall vote on the floor.

For Fisher, as for many congressmen, the call to vote often as not means little more than a brief appearance on the House floor in an otherwise busy day of committee and office work. What Fisher did not suspect, as he scaled the Capitol's marble steps in his ripple-sole cushioned shoes, was that the next 15 minutes of congressional business would dog his bid for a fourth legislative term.

The issue on the House floor that day was whether public schools should teach foreign-born students in their native languages. The way Fisher voted on an obscure amendment on the question has become one of the major controversies in the 10th District. For the last month it has provided for some of the campaign's liveliest debates as Fisher's Republican challenger, Vienna lawyer and lobbyist Frank Wolf, has accused the Democratic congressman of supporting an issue about as popular as National Airport overflights in the refugee-swollen suburbs of Northern Virginia. If proposed bilingual regulations are enforced, officials in Fairfax County fear they could be required to spend millions of dollars teaching as many as 50 different tongues in elementary schools.

The only trouble is that Fisher and Wolf agree they don't want bilingual education, leaving many voters puzzled over what they are arguing about. This is the story of how an issue that isn't can often dominate a political race.

In the Northern Virginia campaign, where the principal Republican strategy consists of reminding voters that Fisher has supported Jimmy Carter "nearly 80 to 90 percent of the time," this single congressional vote promises local outrage. The normally subdued Wolf has bubbled with animation when telling audiences how his opponent has been "waffling," "hedging" and "supporting this administration in mandating bilingual education." Joe Fisher simply shakes his head at that.

As much as it reveals the inner workings of Congress, the journey of this vote from obscurity in the congressional records to campaign issue illustrates the campaign communications problems that can stymie candidates and voters alike.

Fisher had spent most of that August 27 morning, one of searing 97-degree heat, huddled in the Longworth Building's Ways and Means Committee room across the street, ironing out report language on a land conservation tax bill he authored. At 1:15, when the bell rang, he was still juggling lunch and the dining room phones to make sure what he calls his "baby" survived committee scrutiny intact.

While Fisher supped, a handful of congressmen on the House floor were debating the huge Education and Labor Appropriations bill. A so-called "privileged" bill, it allowed amendments from the floor without Rules Committee screening.

The floor debate centered on one of about 30 such riders to come up that day, one designed by Rep. John Ashbrook (R-Ohio) to prevent the Department of Education from issuing new regulations mandating bilingual education.

Fisher, along with most other congressmen, had received no advance notice of the amendment. Because the proposed regulations had been published only days earlier, Ashbrook staffers were still working on the amendment the night before.

Entering the House chamber, the 66-year-old Fisher walked straight to the Democratic floor manager, Rep. William Natcher (D-Ky).

"I had come steaming in and heard the last little bit of discussion,: Fisher recalls. "I went to the desk where the managers of the bill were and I said, 'Let's see a copy of this damn thing. I've never heard of it.'"

Since the days several years ago when Fisher presided over the Metro board, and Natcher over the House District Committee, the Virginia lawmaker had come to respect the veteran Kentucky legislator and seek out his advice on education matters. After reading the amendment twice, sifting through a 75-word sentence for nouns and verbs, Fisher said: "Bill, what the hell is this?"

"Vote against it,Joe," Fisher remembers Natcher saying. "It hasn't been through the committee."

At 1:30, suspecting Ashbrook of creating a "smokescreen" for Republican strategists, wary of an amendment that had not been "processed" and convinced, he says, that the measure would actually prevent local school districts from using bilingual programs even if they wanted to, Fisher cast his vote against the Ashbrook amendment and left.

He did not wait to find out who won. The Ashbrook amendment carried by a 19-vote margin, though it is still awaiting Senate approval.

Like Joe Fisher, many congressmen say they voted against it for similar reasons. Like Joe Fisher, "most members probably didn't know what they were voting for," said an official in the Education Department's civil rights branch.

Nevertheless, Frank Wolf continues to hold the vote before voters as an example of Fisher double talk. Joe Fisher frowns. "I've never voted for bilingual education," Fisher storms. "Yes you did, Joe," says Wolf, apologetically. "You may not think you did, but you did."

Wolf "approached the issue in good faith," says his spokeswoman, Ceci Cole. Neither Wolf, nor his staff, Cole says, knew that Fisher had repeatedly gone on record against the proposed bilingual regulations as early as two years ago in letters to then-HEW head Joseph Califano.

"That point was not at all clear to us when we began," Cole said.

Fisher was equally unprepared. When the issue arose, he says, "I didn't know exactly what [Wolf] was talking about." As weeks passed, however, Wolf stepped up his charges while the Ashbrook amendment lurked mysteriously in the background.

"There was a hesitation on [Fisher's] part to come out and say where he really stood," said Cole, explaining Wolf's persistence. "He [Fisher] skipped around the issue an awful lot."

Even Republicans concede the amendment's turgidity. "I think it was a poor choice of words," said Jennifer Vance, a Republican staffer on the House Health, Education and Welfare Subcommittee and one of the bill's authors. "It is a very emotional issue and unless you're sure you have your finger on the nerve base, you don't want to flip the switch the wrong way."

Behind the confusion, say insiders on both sides, are the dozens of debates Northern Virginia voters cherish as a means of choosing their leaders. The two-minute rebuttal format sometimes serves less to clarify issues than to muddy things up even worse.

You get into this with people who are well meaning and who think they're going to get a first-class show," lamented Fisher campaign coordinator Janet Taliaferro. "But candidates get so overexposed to each other, they get kind of punchy."

"Would that they had some kind of round-table discussion, or something better," echoed Cole. "I think [the voters] are getting more of a character impression than anything else."

Last week, Fisher took to privately pouring over the amendment almost daily to assure himself of his original interpretation. Wolf staffers, meanwhile, waxed conciliatory as they collected more information on Fisher's prior record.

"I think, maybe sadly, that the amendment is becoming the issue rather than bilingual education," Cole said. "It comes down more to a matter of approach," hardly the kind of campaign issue likely to rouse the voters.

Holding to a strategy of staying above the fray while discovering more issues on which both he and Wolf can agree, Fisher finds, nevertheless, that he is constantly looking over his shoulder.

"I've voted probably 50,000 times, publicly, on every kind of issue," he says. "Think of it. Sometimes, it worries me."