The fight for Virginia's Republican gubernatorial nomination began in earnest late last week when Republican Rep. Stan Parris mailed out thousands of fliers accusing his opponent, Wyatt B. Durrette, of being soft on crime.

Durrette, a former state delegate, yesterday dismissed the mailing as "misleading" and "absurd."

"What they're trying to do is no surprise," he said. "It's just with more desperation and at an earlier time than we would have thought."

The fliers were composed by Parris' campaign staff and sent to as many as 15,000 Republican activists around the state. They are the opening salvo in what is expected to be an aggressive effort by Parris to win the state's GOP nomination for governor by undercutting Durrette's conservative credentials and support from party leadership.

The flier accuses Durrette of having opposed the death penalty for "five straight years" while in the Virginia General Assembly and having opposed a bill that would have made the use of a firearm during the commission of a crime a separate felony offense.

Parris aide Dick Leggitt said yesterday that the fliers were the first of a series of mailings that would show voters that the two Republican candidates are not ideologically identical. "We're going to be outlining the differences on a whole range of issues: crime, labor, education," Leggitt said.

Reached at his home in Richmond yesterday, Durrette called the flier intentionally misleading. "The things that are mentioned are partial truths that they've taken out of context in order to distort. They know better than that, that's the unfortunate part."

To document their charges, Parris staffers produced voting records that indicate Durrette, while in the House of Delegates, voted against capital punishment in two of his first five years as delegate.

Parris staffers also produced copies of two legislative resolutions in which the General Assembly called on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to outlaw the busing of schoolchildren to achieve racial balance in schools. Parris supported the resolutions and Durrette voted against them.

Durrette yesterday described himself as an "ardent and thoughtful" conservative, as he said a closer inspection of his record in the General Assembly would show.

Durrette said he had opposed a constitutional amendment to ban busing because he was philosophically against tampering with the Constitution. Instead, he advocated removing the question from the Supreme Court's jurisdiction. "That was the position of many thoughtful conservatives, including conservative journalist Bill Buckley," Durrette said.

He said that he has always supported the death penalty in principle and voted for the bill that passed into law in 1977. That bill mandated the death penalty for the murder of a police officer. Previous nay votes had been because of constitutional questions about the language in particular bills, he said.

Durrette has been seeking the GOP nomination for more than a year. He formally announced his candidacy in November and is considered the party's front-runner. Parris declared his candidacy a few weeks after winning reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Durrette said that he does not expect the mailing to have an effect on his support