A headline in yesterday's editions referred to Marie Ridder of McLean, a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, as a socialite. Whether she is a socialite is an issue in the race and The Post did not mean to imply by the headline that it agrees with the characterization.

When Marie Ridder of McLean decided last summer to run for the Virginia House of Delegates, her friends and neighbors were eager to help.

Socialite Nancy Dickerson threw a lavish cocktail party at Merrywood, her elegant estate that was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' girlhood home. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, offered to hold a neighborhood coffee and Virginia's First Lady Lynda Bird Robb volunteered to be hostess at a reception.

"This is not exactly your ordinary delegate race," said veteran Democratic activist Sue Hoffman, who is managing Ridder's campaign to unseat freshman state Del. Robert T. Andrews, a Republican.

Ridder, 57, a free-lance journalist, is married to retired Knight-Ridder newspaper executive Walter T. Ridder, an heir to one of America's largest newspaper chains. Her famous friends and high-powered parties have become the hottest issue in the race to represent Virginia's new 33rd House District.

"I think ultimately the voters are interested in quality and performance, not the number of political stars you bring out," said Andrews, 62, a former Defense Department lawyer who served on Richard Nixon's Watergate defense team. "Of course, I have some big names myself," he said, referring to former Virginia governors John N. Dalton and Linwood Holton, Sen. John W. Warner, and Virginia House Minority Leader Vincent F. Callahan of McLean, all of whom have campaigned for him.

Callahan, the senior Republican legislator from Northern Virginia, minces no words about Ridder's candidacy. "She's a wealthy political dilettante, a limousine liberal who, if she weren't dabbling in politics, would be active in the symphony or ballet," he said.

Andrews has questioned Ridder's commitment and her qualifications, although in less blunt terms. He has charged that Ridder, a former Washington correspondent for newspapers in Philadelphia and St. Paul and an editor of Vogue magazine, "just wrote about events, instead of making the hard policy decisions like I did."

Such statements anger Ridder, a Bryn Mawr graduate who holds a master's degree in agricultural economics. She also worked as a Head Start official in the Johnson administration. "I have been terribly active over the years, but as a journalist I haven't tried to highlight it," she said. "A dilettante doesn't help write legislation for Head Start. A dilettante does not become a foreign correspondent. And I have never been near the symphony."

Verbal salvos aside, party leaders say the outcome of the Nov. 2 election in this district, which stretches from the elegant homes along the Potomac to the new suburban tract housing in eastern Loudoun County, is in doubt.

"From what I hear, Bob is doing a good job, but I think it's going to be a very tight race," says Loudoun County GOP Chairman Winston Porter. "The thing we're fighting this year is apathy. People don't even know which House district they're in and a lot of them don't care."

When the Democratic-dominated legislature redrew the House of Delegates boundaries this year, they stripped Andrews, a soft-spoken moderate, of most of his old district and left him with 41,000 new constituents. Some Democrats say that the political demographics still favor him. "Marie is making a tremendous run against a good man who is an incumbent in a Republican district," state Sen. L. Clive DuVal II (D-Fairfax) said.

"Marie Ridder is flashy and zesty and has the charisma that might work in some areas," said Andrews' aide Jim Wilson. "But I don't think it'll work here."

Few issues divide the candidates and many politicians have said the chief difference may be the professional organization staffed by political veterans that is backing Ridder. Ridder's organization, which includes a Washington graphic design firm and a professional telephone bank -- a rarity for a legislative race in Virginia -- is the product of a campaign budget that is expected to reach nearly $30,000. Andrews, by contrast, hopes to raise $12,000.

So far Ridder has raised more than $20,000, including an $8,000 loan from her husband, much of which she has spent on printing campaign literature and invitations to her fund-raisers. (Among them is "A sing-along for Marie Ridder" party printed in the form of a piano keyboard.)

Andrews, who has raised about $6,000, has not made Ridder's wealth a campaign issue, but said he regards it as a factor. "I feel I can relate to people better than Marie can," he said. "I live on a limited income."

Andrews, whose wife Minerva is a prominent Fairfax zoning lawyer, said he hopes to compensate for his smaller campaign budget by stressing his 32 years in the federal government, his involvement in McLean civic affairs, and his year in Richmond in a Democratic-controlled legislature.

Andrews counts two laws among his legislative achievements. One exempts certain real estate transactions from recording fees and another exempts Wolf Trap Farm Park from state and local taxes.

"I've served my freshman term and would be in a position to be more visible," said Andrews, a member of the House Roads and Transportation Committee. He says he would work to get more money for Northern Virginia and to see the Dulles Airport toll road built. "I want to serve in the General Assembly. Mrs. Ridder wanted to serve in Congress."

Last spring Ridder considered running against GOP Rep. Frank R. Wolf, but decided against it after calculating it would cost $250,000 to win the Democratic primary, a sum she considered "immoral."

"Congress was a bigger bite than I could manage," said Ridder, a conservationist who serves on the Virginia Council on the Environment. "As a Democrat, I could work better with the governor and legislature." She advocates increasing state aid to education and restoring some federal budget cuts by raising the taxes levied on trucks, cigarettes, alcohol and other "luxuries," which she defines as "those items peripheral to existence."

Both candidates have spent much of their time walking through precincts, going door to door. The other day Ridder strode down Penny Lane in the Sugarland Run subdivision, accompanied by three workers and armed with a thick canary-yellow binder and sheafs of campaign brochures.

Periodically Ridder stopped to pluck mushrooms growing wild on the lawns, tossing away the poisonous ones and dropping others in her leather purse to eat later. She complimented some residents on their gardens, others on their dogs, before making her pitch. She appeared delighted when several people agreed to work for her.

"I love going door to door when people talk to me," she said, "and I feel less foolish when people know my name. But I have no idea whether or not this will ultimately matter. The candidate is always the last to know how things are going."