In Virginia, where Mother Nature and modern highways are defended with equal ferocity, the 33rd District senatorial race is turning into a battle between the common man and the commuting man.

Three-term Democratic Sen. Charles L. Waddell, whose bluegrass singing and old-fashioned populism have played better at the polls than in Richmond, is sticking to his old "friendship and shoe leather" strategy, taking to the streets with a strong record on conservation and consumer issues.

"I think it's my job to help those who can't help themselves," Waddell says, "the elderly, the mentally ill, the handicapped." Waddell has been a leading proponent of such issues as affirmative action, women's rights, aid to the handicapped and environmental protection.

His Republican challenger, conservative Lonnie Bridges, is pounding the political pavement, too. Bridges is using the old frustrations of crowded commuting routes such as Rtes. 28 and 7 to belittle Waddell's 12 years on the Senate Transportation Committee, a record Bridges calls "a travesty."

"Charlie's a nice guy," Bridges says readily. "He has a good record on environment. But people have to use the highways every time they go to work, to school, to the grocery. It's a question of his effectiveness. He's been on the Transportation Committee since the day he was elected . . . . It's ridiculous that widening 28 hasn't even made it into the Highway Department's six-year plan."

Bridges is campaigning on a promise to develop a bipartisan coalition of Northern Virginia politicians committed to increasing local highway funding--a peacemaking claim given surprising weight when longtime Fairfax Republican rivals, conservative John S. Buckley and moderate John H. Rust Jr., united to support Bridges.

After 12 years of being described, and sometimes dismissed, as the most colorful member of the state Senate, Charlie Waddell is hoping to settle into a respectable gray eminence.

"I think you grow into the job," Waddell says. "I certainly have. I went into the buzz saw many times unaware. But I've learned that you can accomplish a lot more by cooperating. Politics is the art of the possible . . . it's the art of the compromise."

A longtime ally of Henry E. Howell, Virginia Democrats' liberal darling and perennial gubernatorial bridesmaid, Waddell this time is emphasizing his relationship with Gov. Charles S. Robb, who is a little more moderate in his politics and a lot more successful. Robb is expected to make an appearance for Waddell before the Nov. 8 election.

Having survived the sting of being rated the least effective state senator in a 1979 poll of lobbyists, reporters and legislators, Waddell is playing up his recent graduation to the chairmanship of the Local Government Committee. "Committee chairmen control the flow of legislation," the newly pragmatic Waddell says. "I'm going to focus on my seniority and influence."

"I think it's nice that a legislator can sit around for 12 years and grow up to be a committee chairman," Bridges says with a shrug. "But I don't hear about any influence."

In 1979, Waddell narrowly defeated Herndon Mayor Thomas D. Rust after weathering a particularly bitter primary battle against then-delegate Raymond E. Vickery Jr.

On the other hand, Bridges, director of buildings and energy for the Loudoun County school system and a former Warren County planning commissioner, says the issue of time is on his side.

"I've talked to a lot of people . . . ," Bridges says. "They're all saying the same thing: 'Twelve years is enough.' "