They've already started. All over Northern Virginia, candidates are staging crab fests and ice cream socials, printing literature, handing out campaign souvenirs and walking door-to-door.

It's the inevitable post-Labor Day push for votes that may be more intense than ever this year. No wonder, with candidates in most every locality running for delegate, senator, county supervisor, sheriff and a host of other local offices, area voters will face more choices and perhaps more confusion than ever before Nov. 8.

Thus far, the issues raised by the candidates have brought few surprises. Some of the more familiar favorites are: greater state funding of Northern Virginia highways (most are for it), the Lorton prison (they're against it) and quality education (they're for it).

A discerning voter, however, would do well to listen closely when the candidates discuss these and other issues on the campaign trail. Whether deliberately or unwittingly, many candidates are likely to promise to solve problems that do not even fall within the purview of the offices they are seeking.

Take transportation funding. Virtually every candidate for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is pledging to improve the county's share of state transportation money, arguing that the area's highway congestion is intolerable and that the county has been shortchanged by state officials for years.

Because there lives nary a soul in Fairfax who has not spent many sweaty hours watching traffic lights turn from red to green to red again, that kind of statement makes good election-year politics. But what the candidates usually don't tell you is that the county board has little, if any, ability to change the state's highway-funding formula.

That right belongs exclusively to the legislature, which is still dominated by downstate and rural legislators whose districts gain the most from the preservation of the current highway-funding formula.

In highway funding, as in all state revenue collection, these legislators say it is only fair that the state's wealthiest region--the Washington suburbs--should help pay for roads in some of the less developed areas. They haven't got the tax base to support their needed roads.

Add to that the fact that the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation likes the friendlier reception its big projects have downstate, and you can imagine how much difficulty county officials will have using moral suasion to capture a bigger handful of state highway dollars.

After all, the battle for I-66 burned many state officials, and few want another decade-long fight in a region where highways are always popular until residents find them planned for their own back yards.

There are other interesting campaign promises.

Fairfax County Board candidate Elaine McConnell, a Springfield Republican, says she will fight drug abuse in county schools. Virginia law seems to tell county boards they can't dictate policy to school boards.

A number of candidates are railing over the Lorton prison complex, which long has been unpopular in southern Fairfax.

Yet even one of the leading Lorton critics, County Board Chairman John F. Herrity, says the state and county lack the authority to close the prison and would be on shaky legal grounds if the county were to attempt to sue over the issue, unless more escapes proved a hazard to local residents.

"The board's not going to file a political suit on this," Herrity said this week. "We're going to do what we have grounds to do--nothing more."

And, of course, there are the candidates who promise to trim taxes while maintaining or improving services. If they can figure out how to accomplish that, watch out. They may have a bridge to sell you.