Looking cool and confident, a shotgun in his arms and a smile on his face, Virginia state Del. Lawrence D. Pratt stares out from page 82 of the August issue of Life Magazine. The story is called "Young Turks of the Radical Right," and Pratt, a Fairfax Republican, is featured, in glossy glory, with 10 other "true architects of the New Right."

Some 32,248 copies of Life were circulated in Virginia that month, and for Pratt, the 38-year-old executive director of the Gun Owners of America, it was another reflection of the power of incumbency -- a power that Pratt and his two fellow Republican delegates are attempting to use to their best advantage in the race for the three House of Delegates seats in southwestern Fairfax.

Democrat Vivian Watts is also running for delegate in the 51st District. She has been going door to door three to four hours a night, almost every night since May. Because the Democrats could field only three candidates for the three seats, she faced no primary -- and won no early publicity as a result.

"After the Republican primary," Watts says, "people refused to come to my coffees. People would say, 'She's not running. I didn't see her name on the primary ballot.'

"I felt like sort of a nonperson," said the 41-year-old Watts. And for the three Democratic nominees -- Watts, Michael Hershman and V.L. Strang Jr. -- the problem is that Watts is probably the best known of them all. A longtime Democratic Party activist, she unsuccessfully challenged Fairfax Board Chairman John F. Herrity two years ago. Their Republican opponents, Pratt, James H. Dillard and Robert E. Harris, have 18 years of legislative experience -- and publicity -- among them.

Watt's fellow Democrats concede that getting their names before the public is a major problem in the district, which includes the communities of Burke, Centreville and Clifton, all filled with many new housing tracts -- and new voters. To attract attention, Hershman, 36, has even attempted a play on his name: His posters resemble the wrappers of Hershey candy bars.

Telephone one of the Democrats and you'll never reach them on the first try, probably not the second either. They're out at a shopping center or a coffee or going door to door. When they finally do call back, they seem breathless. They are literally running for office.

Not that the incumbents aren't working hard, too. But like a champion boxer in a title match, they know it is the challenger who must make the much better showing to win the title.

Republicans Dillard, 47, and Harris, 45, are reached at their offices on the first try. Pratt is on the telephone or in a meeting, but still in his office. Their campaigning is done mostly after office hours and on weekends.

Even the rhetoric of incumbents is different, because they have the advantage -- and the disadvantage -- of a legislative record. Like the challengers, Pratt, a one-term legislator, is appalled by drug use in the schools, wants to crack down on crime and is against a regional gasoline tax and the food tax and is for indexing of state income tax.

Harris, after four terms, says he is in favor of more state funds for Northern Virginia roads and mass transit and more equitable distribution of state monies to fund area schools. Dillard, who has also served four terms, says he would like to bring more business to Northern Virginia, ensure that Fairfax has adequate water supplies during droughts and improve education.

Their opponents have similar stands. Watts stresses better education and roads and greater fiscal austerity. Hershman supports a bill requiring mandatory sentencing for repeat criminal offenders, expanded restitution for victims of violent crimes and mandatory jail sentences for adults who sell drugs to minors.

But then comes the difference.

Pratt can say he fought successfully for passage of a law banning sale of drug paraphernalia or that he helped persuade the governor to veto a bill that would have wiped away all records of felony convictions for violent crime by criminals under 21. He is not only against the regional gasoline tax and the food tax and for indexing of state income tax -- he also voted that way in the legislature. The other incumbents have similar achievements that follow from incumbency itself.

Harris represents the General Assembly on the board of the Metropolitan Council of Governments and sits on the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. Dillard is chairman of the statewide Water Supply Commission and has sponsored legislation to assure Fairfax of needed water. As a member of the Standards of Quality Education subcommittee, Dillard fought successfully for decreasing class size in kindergarten through third-grade classes statewide.

The accomplishments of challengers are often less public. Watts was past president of the Fairfax Area League of Women Voters and director of research and legislative activities for the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce. Hershman was a high-profile investigator for the Senate Watergate Committee and a past deputy auditor general of the Agency for International Development.

"It's tough for a newcomer," says Harris.

There is, however, an eternal advantage for the outsider. Asked what his major platform positions are, Strang, 27, a free-lance political consultant, speaks quickly and surely:

"The Republican candidates. Harris and Pratt have done a terrible job as incumbents. I'm trying to let people know about it."