The Democrat, surrounded by elephant lapel pins, enemy posters and Republicans of every shape and size, was understandably depressed. Within minutes, Republican J. Marshall Coleman, Viginia's attorney general, would formally announce his well-known intention to run for governor. As far as the Democrat was concerned, that announcement represented a threat to a sacred way of life.

"For Democrats this is the last try," said the Democrat, who pleaded for anonymity after infiltrating Coleman's campaign kickoff this week. "If Chuck Robb (Virginia's Democratic lieutenant governor) can't win, it's all over for the Democrats -- forever."

Robb was not to officially declare his candidacy for the governor's job until this morning. But Democrats and Republicans have been gearing up for this race for more than a year. Republicans are determined to keep the state's highest elected office, which they have controlled through three consecutive administrations for 12 years; Democrats are sounding a particularly frantic call to arms because of the dramatic inroads made by Republicans throughout the state in the last decade.

Both sides are discussing this campaign with the relish of Western saloon patrons waiting for a shootout on main street at high noon.

"This will be a classic battle," said State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria), contributing to the early morning fervor at a Tysons Corner hotel ballroom where Coleman was crowned this year's top Republican gun. "You've got two men, both young, attractive and articulate. And neither will have trouble raising funds."

There is little contrast in a comparison between the two candidates. Both Coleman, 38, and Robb, 41, have planted themselves in political turf to the right of center. Each possesses a photogenic profile and a passing stump style. And neither expects to have any trouble collecting a few million dollars for this year's contest.

With all those things being equal, the Republicans feel they are starting with a lead. A popular Republican is the current resident of the White House and the Republican party in Virginia operates the slicker political machine.

"Technologically we are light years ahead of the Democrats," said William Olson, the Fairfax County Republican party chairman. "We're very proud of our Republican organization in Northern Virginia."

"Because the contrasts are not as clear as they have been in the past, the race will be a contest of party strengths," said Del. David Speck (R-Alexandria), one of two dozen Republican office holders who showed up for Coleman's announcement.

Even the most upbeat Democrats concede they have been out-organized and out-computerized by Republicans in recent elections. Two years ago, for example, Republicans swept eight of the 10 House of Delegates seats in Fairfax County. Democratic party leaders immediately began a crash course in computer science, but GOP organizers say they are still at the back of the class.

The choice of Northern Virginia for both candidate's campaign kickoffs emphasizes the importance each places on wooing this area's voters. Both Robb, who lives in McLean, and Coleman, who drew more than 60 percent of the Northern Virginia vote during his 1977 campaign for attorney general, have taken aim at the fast-growing, politically conservative suburbs.

"This will certainly be a battleground," said Speck, one of the Republican candidates who benefited from his party's political blitzkrieg two years ago. "Right now it's up for grabs."

One of Coleman's first campaign promises was to build new roads in Northern Virginia. Coleman also promised to fight crime, check inflation and support education. Mostly Coleman assured his Republican colleagues that he would continue to lead Virginia down the same righteous and conservative path blazed by current governor John N. Dalton.

"Virginia's got a good thing going, and we're going to keep it that way," said Coleman, trying out his campaign slogan for the first time.

If his opening address was any indication, Coleman also plans to present himself as the most tightfisted politician to ever don a $200 suit. Coleman said the state would "live within its means," fund only programs "we can afford" and remain ever ready to "tighten our belts."

After his speech, Coleman felt the ballroom for a press conference and three days of campaigning. On his way out the door, followed by his wife Niki and four children, Coleman slowed to shake hands and kiss cheeks.

"I got a kiss," said Agnes Loboda, president of the Greater Vienna Republican Women's Club, who stationed herself at the door for just such a reward. But impressed as she was by Coleman's smooth smooch, she was more impressed that he had traveled to her neighborhood to deliver it.

"Normally in Richmond they don't know there is a Northern Virginia," said Loboda. "But they do now. Now they're looking to us."