Arlington Circuit Court Judge Charles S. Russell has emerged as a leading candidate in historically discreet but intense regional politicking for an upcoming Virginia Supreme Court vacancy.

Efforts to propel the first Northern Virginian in 21 years onto the state's conservative, seven-member high court began after Justice Albertis S. Harrison Jr., of Southside Virginia, announced recently he will retire effective Jan. 1.

Russell, 55, praised by supporters as an articulate, even scholarly, judge in 14 years on the Arlington bench, has been passed over twice before in political maneuvering in the heavily Democratic General Assembly, which elects the state's judges.

"His support from last year is still there, which is good. But it's too early to tell -- too many things could happen," says state Sen. Edward M. Holland, an Arlington Democrat and avid Russell backer.

The main challenge to Russell when the legislature convenes next month is expected to come from Tidewater, which, like Northern Virginia, now lacks a representative on the court.

With the help of the Northern Virginia legislative delegation, a traditional Tidewater seat went to Roscoe B. Stephenson Jr., of Covington in Southwest Virginia, earlier this year -- an IOU the Northern Virginians now hope to cash.

"We didn't have any firm understanding, but we all supported their candidate," says Sen. Adelard L. Brault, a Fairfax County Democrat who also says he supports Russell. "This time around, it's Northern Virginia's turn."

Brault says backing from seven Northern Virginia Democrats and eight from Southwest Virginia would leave Russell's supporters only one vote shy of a majority in the 31-member Senate Democratic Caucus.

The outcome is less clear on the House side, where Republicans are more numerous. Since Democrats typically vote in a bloc on judgeships, selection by their party caucuses is tantamont to victory.

Tidewater lost its sole representative on the court last year with the retirement of then-Chief Justice Lawrence I'Anson. Local bar associations failed to come up with a mutually agreeable choice from among several competing candidates, including Henry E. Howell, of Norfolk, a former lieutenant governor.

The last Northern Virginian to ascend to the bench, current Chief Justice Harry L. Carrico, was elected in 1961 and moved from Fairfax County to Richmond about 15 years ago.

"As a practical matter, lawyers from this area would be delighted to see a familiar face" on the court, says Alexandria attorney Stewart C. Economou.

Russell, the only candidate so far this year from the Washington suburbs, recently won unanimous backing from the Arlington Bar Association and has scored high with several statewide bar groups in the past.

A potential obstacle to Russell's candidacy melted last weekend with the announcement by William B. Spong, a former U.S. senator and now dean of the Marshall Wythe School of Law at The College of William and Mary, that he did not wish to be considered for the court.

Russell, on the Circuit Court bench since 1967, is considered by many a classic example of the traditional white, male Virginian -- a Richmond native, educated at the University of Virginia, an Episcopal vestryman, tennis fan and yachtsman. "His intellectual ability is absolutely first-rate. He has a scholarly quality," says former Democratic state attorney general Andrew P. Miller.

The judge also has his detractors. "He has no sensitivity for the Constitution," says John Shapiro, an Alexandria criminal defense attorney who has appeared often with clients in Russell's courtroom. "He's very polite, a real Southern gent. But on suppression of evidence motions or grand jury matters -- forget it."

Known as a harsh sentencer in cases involving drugs or violent crime, Russell once told an interviewer he regarded Virginia as "always a very pleasant place to live, even for the poor."

"They're all tough sentencers in Arlington," says Shapiro. "He doesn't stand out."

Meanwhile, Russell declines to comment on his prospects, except to say he has had "a continuing interest" in the state Supreme Court. He leaves the politics to others, like Holland.

"If Tidewater gets its act together, there could be a serious challenge," says Holland, sizing up his candidate's chances. "But Russell's been in line a bit longer."