A newcomer to Prince William County might have difficulty this fall realizing he is watching the genteel politics of Virginia in the race for the county's three seats in the House of Delegates.

Republican Party chairman Peter Stekelee stoked the political fires there labeling one Democratic incumbent "the Mortimer Snerd of Prince William politics" and publicly describing another opponent's position on legislative redistricting as "pure drivel."

"I don't know what led me to say that," Stekelee chuckled recently. He said the target of his remark, Del. Floyd C. Bagley, didn't mind being compared to Edgar Bergen's puppet character of low intelligence because "he's the only Democrat with a sense of humor."

The Democrats have added a bizarre touch of their own with a newspaper ad featuring Norborne Beville, a Manassas attorney in his first bid for public office, in a cowboy hat above the legend: "I'm Meaner than J.R.!

"In fact when it comes to fighting government waste and inefficiency I'll make J.R. look like a sissy," the ad promises.

Party chairman G. Richard Fitzner said the ad -- an unusual tack for a University of Virginia-educated lawyer who Fitzner says has a "perfect Virginia pedigree" -- was meant to be "cutesy" and get Beville's name before the voters.

Perhaps the most celebrated incident in the race has been the investigation by Virginia State Police of former Manassas Mayor Harry Parrish on conflict-of-interest allegations. Parrish, a Republican candidate for the House, has denied any wrongdoing and both party chairmen said they expect him to be exonerated.

"He's an honorable gentleman," said Fitzner, vowing that the probe "will never be mentioned" as an issue by the three Democratic candidates.

All of which is expected to draw a high turnout on Nov. 3, when voters for the first time will choose three county-wide delegates. The third seat, formerly shared with neighboring Loudoun County, was awarded to Prince William this year as a reflection of its rapid population growth during the 1970s.

County voter registration, which customarily rises in a gubernatorial election year, is reported up by about 8,000 from two years ago.

The Republicans -- whose ticket, includes Parrish, Woodbridge tire dealer John Adams Rollison III and William J. Becker, a retired military officer -- are voicing optimism, tempered by the reality that Prince William has been a Democratic bastion in legislative contests since Reconstruction.

"I'd say that one race is ours to lose. We have a reasonable chance in another and a chance in the third," says Republican chairman Stekelee. He declined to be more specific.

The Democratic campaign has stressed the legislative experience of incumbents Bagley, a Dumfries lawyer, and David G. Brickley, a mortgage investment executive in Woodbridge. The two, running with Beville as a team dubbed the 3-Bs, are seeking fourth terms in the House.

"They (the Republicans) have 30 years' experience on their ticket," says Democratic chairman Fitzner. "Unfortunately, it's all Harry Parrish's. We don't see what running Manassas necessarily has to do with the interests of Woodbridge, Dale City and Lake Ridge."

Fitzner, a county supervisor, nevertheless contends that a sometimes bitter split between those bedroom communities along the Interstate 95 corridor and the more rural, conservative area in western Prince William has narrowed.

"We all know budget cuts are coming. The question is whether we should have a team down there (in Richmond) to protect our backsides," Fitzner says.

The candidates have disagreed in frequent joint appearances over the impact of legislative redistricting, how to remedy county residents' high sewer and water bills, and a proposal, put forward by the Democrats, to limit campaign spending to an amount equal to a delegate's yearly salary -- $8,000.

Stekelee said this week Republican spending probably will total two or three times that figure.

The Republicans have criticized Bagley and Brickley's performance on redistricting, claiming they voted for a plan that was clearly unconstitutional. They also have complained that while Prince William gained one new delegate, the legislature split the county between two state senators and two congressional districts.

"We went to Richmond to get an additional delegate seat and we got it," Brickley retorts. "No Republican (candidate) attended any of the public hearings we held in Richmond or Northern Virginia."

Brickley claims Rollison's only trip to Richmond was to have his picture taken with Republican Gov. John N. Dalton and to "sit on the floor of the House to see what it's like."

Rollison notes that the Prince William GOP joined in court challenges to the plan and scoffs at a claim by Bagley that he voted for it after receiving "bad advice" from legislative staff members.

Rollison also has charged that Bagley, a member of the House Courts of Justice committee, missed more than 40 percent of the committee's votes in the last session. Bagley blames any absences on scheduling conflicts.