U.S. Senate candidates Paul S. Trible and Richard J. Davis sharply divided on the economy and some social issues tonight in a televised debate largely dominated by personal squabbling and heated attacks on each other's campaign tactics and past records.

Davis, the Democrat, called his Republican opponent a "press release congressman" and a "career politician who has spent six years in Washington without particular distinction." He accused Trible of urging the unemployed to acquaint themselves with the want ads in the newspapers.

"I say it's time, Paul, for you to look at the want ads yourself," he said.

Trible retorted by accusing Davis of playing "political games," distorting his congressional attendance record and skirting the substantive issues that offer Virginia voters a "clear choice."

Tonight's clash between the 35-year-old Trible, three-term congressman from Newport News, and the 61-year-old Davis, the state's lieutenant governor and a former Portsmouth mayor, was held on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University and was the first and only televised joint appearance of the campaign. It came with less than two weeks left before election day and the latest public opinion polls showing the candidates in a virtual dead heat.

The candidates returned to themes they have raised time and again over the past three months. Trible portrayed himself as a defender of the Reagan administration's economic policies, staunchly opposed to higher taxes while supporting a balanced budget amendment.

Davis called attention to the high unemployment rate and criticized Trible for "voting for the biggest budget deficits in history." He did not level any direct attacks on President Reagan.

Trible urges us "to do nothing and stay the course," Davis said. "I believe we should change course while continuing in the same general direction."

Some new issues did emerge. Trible said he backed the "democratically elected government" in El Salvador and suggested that Davis supported the "Marxist guerrillas" there.

Davis implied that Trible was linked to the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority because Falwell has endorsed Trible's candidacy. "I can't believe Virginia wants to send you . . . as the Jerry Falwell of the United States Senate," Davis said.

"I welcome the support of every Virginian," Trible said.

In other areas, Trible backed legislation for a lower minimum wage for teen-agers, while Davis opposed such a measure. Trible supported a constitutional amendment for school prayer, which Davis opposed. Both candidates opposed school busing, while dodging a question on whether they would vote for a constitutional amendment on the issue.

The differences were also evident in style. Trible was forceful and direct, looking at the cameras as he referred to Davis as "my opponent." Davis was more relaxed, interspersing his answers with quips and referring to Trible as "Paul."

At one point, Trible responded to a question about what he learned during a congressional trip to Geneva to observe the SALT talks by saying "there's no substitute for having been there."

"I believe the question was what could you learn that I can't," Davis remarked. "And my answer is nothing."

Much of the debate was taken up by squabbling over the other candidate's media advertising and campaign tactics. Trible charged that Davis was spending "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to "saturate" the airwaves with negative attacks on his congressional attendance record. Davis at first said that "I have not been able to raise enough money to take time to explain fully" the issues. Later, he added, "I don't recall that they his own ads have been that negative."

Davis repeatedly attempted to ridicule Trible's record in Congress, noting that Trible's "proudest" legislative achievement out of more than 50 bills introduced was the passage of one commemorating the Revolutionary War victory in Yorktown. "Either you're putting in frivolous bills or you're putting in bills that other people aren't interested in," Davis said.

Responded Trible, "My opponent doesn't understand how the legislative process works. I'm a member of the Budget Committee and the Budget Committee has no legislative jurisdiction."

However, on that committee, Trible said, he had worked successfully to increase the Navy's shipbuilding program. "It doesn't have my name on it, but my God, they're building those ships in Virginia today," he said.