Tough.

That's one image Charles S. Robb wants to project to Virginia voters in his bid for governor. And that's what they saw yesterday when Robb, dressed in a gray suit, red tie and black wing-tip shoes, appeared at the Fairfax County police firing range, ostensibly to talk with Northern Virginia police recruits.

In fact, the appearance offered television cameras and reporters another snapshot in Robb's image campaign in which he is emerging as the "tough" candidate. He is portrayed as a combat veteran in current political ads, and future commercials promise a picture of Robb as an aggressive law enforcer.

"I think, truly, toughness is a necessary quality for almost anyone in a position of leadership," said Robb, the former Marine Corps captain who was rated "expert" with firearms when he was in Vietnam. "Both mental, physical and emotional toughness are required."

Robb didn't actually fire a gun yesterday, because police officials said it would disrupt a cadet-training exercise. But two weeks ago, Robb, whose aides say he "detests" the gimmicks of media politicking, was at a police firing range near Richmond, where his television film crew captured him peppering a target with a .38-caliber revolver.

So voters who already have seen the Democratic lieutenant governor dodging bullets as a Marine officer in a five-minute advertisement, will, in coming commercials, see him firing a few of his own as he talks about the importance of firm law enforcement.

Robb campaign officials often point to opponent J. Marshall Coleman's youth and boyish good looks to paint him as the softer of the two, apparently seeing toughness as a campaign advantage for Robb. They steered the press to Coleman's record as an "average" Marine officer and suggest in their commercials that voters choose Robb for "the toughest job in Virginia."

"I think I'm certainly tough enough for the job," Robb said yesterday.

Tougher than Marshall Coleman?

"I'm not going to get into a macho countdown with you," Robb replied.

But his aides will. And the trick now is to successfully cast Coleman, the boyishly handsome Republican attorney general, as not so tough.

"I don't think anybody who was in the Marine Corps for as long as he was and who fought as hard as he did needs to prove how tough he is," said Robb's press aide, George Stoddard. "He is a tough guy. That's just the way he is.

"Apparently, Marshall's idea is to put him in a cardigan sweater with some actors," said Stoddard, "and tell what his plan is for helping people in Virginia. I guess they like the image of cardigan sweater and sort of boyish governor."

The tough man theme is a familiar one to Robb's media consultant, Robert Squier, who prefers to serve the image platter in successive bites-- combat veteran in one ad, law enforcer in another -- so that by the time they go to the polls, voters will have swallowed the whole meal.

In the Mississippi governor's race two years ago, Squier used toughness to help a two-time loser come from behind and beat a female opponent. Squier pictured his candidate, William Winter, blasting away on a police firing range, while his opposition was seen in her ads on a picnic talking about children and education. "The toughest job in Mississippi," is how Squier characterized the governor's job there.

"Maybe Robb thinks that machoism is important to the people of Virginia," countered David Blee, spokesman for Coleman. His commercials portray him as an "experienced" candidate who has "had to work for everything he's ever gotten," implying that Robb's rapid political rise resulted more from his marriage to Lynda Bird Johnson than from hard work.

"I think Mr. Robb certainly proved his virility in his first commercial," said Blee sarcastically. "Maybe he'll talk about issues in the next one and what he's been doing for the last four years. Marshall volunteered for the infantry in Vietnam, so that's a standoff. We don't feel that's necessary for our candidate."

Whatever the impression Virginians draw, Robb got mixed reviews from local police cadets. "He's gonna get my vote," said recruit A. Joseph Boudreau of Vienna. "I like to see him down here relating to me."

"I'm glad he came down," added John Lane of Arlington, who, nevertheless, was distressed by Robb's fondness for words. "I don't want to say he talks too much, but he kind of lost my attention. Maybe some guys need that much explaining."