Most afternoons after the Virginia Senate adjourns, Sen. Edward M. Holland (D-Arlington) can be seen scouring the chamber, hunting for votes to put Arlington Circuit Court Judge Charles S. Russell on the Virginia Supreme Court.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. When the legislature adjourned last year, Northern Virginian Democratic lawmakers were confident that the next opening on the seven-member high court would be theirs. It was a prize the legislators wanted dearly, hoping that the addition of a voice from the Washington suburbs would quell frequent complaints that the Richmond court is insensitive to their region.

Once the current session began, however, the Northern Virginians were to discover that their certain victory had turned into a neck-and-neck race between Russell and another Circuit Court Judge, William H. Hodges of Chesapeake, a former delegate and senator.

At this point, few are predicting who the legislature will elect to the court. "It's a bluff game," said Sen. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond). "Each group says it has the votes locked up but the people who say that don't mean it."

The intense campaigning over the $63,000-a-year Supreme Court seat is shaping up as a classic battle between the state's disparate geographic regions. Hodges' supporters are looking south and east, making a pitch both to Tidewater chauvinism and to the 'old boy' network of which Hodges was once a member. The Northern Virginians have been wooing the less populous Southwest, trying to hold together a coalition which last year put a Southwestern judge on the Supreme Court.

Regional alliances are a necessary part of the Virginia legislature's work. No one single region is large enough to dominate the rest of the assembly, so each area must look beyond its boundaries for support on every kind of issue-funding for colleges, roads or any controversial change in local government charters.

The Southwest-Northern Virginia axis has appeared before, supplying money to the Washington area's Metro transit system and defeating a coal tax proposals. It is, however, a shifting alliance, based as much on the differences between the two regions as their similarities.

Both the mountains of the Southwest and the suburbs of Washington historically have been outside the state's conservative political mainstream but more importantly, neither one considers the other a natural competitor for state funds. "Generally, they're in a good position to trade off because they are not after the same thing," said a Tidewater delegate.

This year, the partnership backing Russell for a 12-year-term on the court is more ad-hoc, although some argue that Northern Virginia and the Southwest have a common interest in breaking the conservative mold of the state Supreme Court. Northern Virginians have been critical of its decisions overturning local land use laws and Southwesterners have, in some cases, expressed concern about a big-business bias on the court. "What we have now is a very antideluvian court," said one Northern Virginian.

Hodges, 52, now in his 10th year on the bench, was regarded as an old-line conservative during his days in the legislature. Russell, 55, a judge since 1967, also is regarded as a tough sentencer although his decision three years ago to give probation to an Antioch Law School student convicted of rape prompted some criticism from hard-liners. Of the two, only Russell was endorsed last weekend by the Virginia Bar Association.

In Virginia, the selection of judges is the exclusive province of Democrats. Following a tradition that has been roundly and futily denounced by the Republican minority, the Democratic caucuses meet, usually in secret, to select candidates for the Supreme Court down to the general district courts. After the caucus vote, the unit rule prevails and the majority party, voting as a bloc, dictates its choice in both chambers.

The caucuses typically defer to local delegations on local judgeships. So for instance, the Arlington delegation's unanimous support of Frances (Bud) Thomas, a substitute judge on the county's juvenile and domestic relations court, to succeed Richard W. Corman on the Arlington General District Court this year makes his appointment all but certain.

No date has been set for the caucusing on the Supreme Court vacancy, although Justice Albertis Harrison, a former governor, officially retired on Jan. 1. Interviews of the candidates are scheduled before the Courts of Justice committees next week but, as one Democrat said, those interviews are "meaningless unless somebody falls on his face."

More important are the private interviews between candidates and wavering Democrats, such as the ones scheduled between Russell and key senators last week. The rules of the game do not permit the candidates to do any direct lobbying themselves. "That would not be proper," said Del. Frederick Creekmore (D-Chesapeake), a leader of the Hodges forces in the House.

Lobbying is proper and, during the last weeks, it has grown intense. Creekmore says he spends one to two hours a day on the judgeship campaign. He has divided the House's 66 Democratic members among a group of "team captains," each assigned to work a particular group or delegation. Resumes are being printed. Friends back home are making calls.

In the Senate, it was the calls from lawyers and judges in Franklin County that convinced Sen. Virgil Goode to come out in support of Hodges, mystifying those Northern Virginians who thought they had an understanding from Goode and other Southwestern legislators to back Russell.

Meanwhile, in the House, Richmond delegates are floating the name of Richmond Circuit Court Judge Marvin F. Cole as a dark-horse candidate, looking, said one legislator, to make a deal on support for Cole when the next seat on the Supreme Court opens.

Such agreements are slippery business. Holland had expected solid support from the Southwest delegation this year but now is resigned to possible defections. "It was my understanding that they would come across for us, but you don't ask people to put it down in writing," he said.

This year, once Hampton Judge Nelson T. Overton decided not to seek the seat, Tidewater united, pressing its case for a representative on the court. Northern Virginia makes the same case, arguing that Chief Justice Harry Carrico, although once of Fairfax, has long since moved here.

In the end, the battle boils down to a case of "our guy versus their guy," Creekmore says.

A key advantage for Hodge may be the 10 years he spent in the legislature between 1962 and 1972. "In many ways, this is still like a club," acknowledges Sen. Clive DuVal II (D-Fairfax), chairman of the Senate Democratic caucus.