Here in the rural heart of conservative Virginia, they're putting it down where the dogs can get to it: raw, like red meat.

There's talk of drinking and suicide, racial rhetoric, sex and drugs and even that one candidate once was on food stamps.

There are angry feuds between families. Feuds within families. And there's even a little betting on the side.

A "Campaign of Slime," complained the Lynchburg News in an editorial this week. ". . . The real losers in this campaign have already been determined. They are the voters."

In what politicians agree is one of the nastiest campaigns in Virginia, loyalties going back four decades are being torn asunder as one of the General Assembly's senior legislators battles the son of one of the state's best- known conservatives.

To many the race is significant not only for its style but also for what it says about changes in Virginia's politics and race relations. The man opposing state Del. Claude W. Anderson of Buckingham County in Tuesday's Democratic primary is Watkins Abbitt Jr., often referred to as "Little Wat," whose father was the region's leading segregationist and a congressman.

And Abbitt's surprise tactic has been to appeal openly for black votes, questioning Anderson's commitment to blacks, who make up 35 percent of the district.

"I'm running on what I believe," said the 40-year-old Abbitt. "My father is supporting me like any father supports his son. Times change."

No campaign has so shaken this hard-scrabble land of tobacco farms and piney forests since Grant's troops marched here to receive Lee's surrender and end the Civil War.

Anderson's supporters have denounced Abbitt as a ne'er-do-well, son of a rich man who is blatantly using political expediency to win his first political race before his famous father dies.

"These people have all been friends and political allies," said Billy Sublett, a campaign adviser to Anderson.

"It's not pretty. It's obviously been very hot, very intense. It's exactly what all the primaries used to be like in Virginia . . . . You have people smile at you publicly , and suddenly you have blood all over the ground," he said.

The stakes for the Democratic nomination for the $11,000-a-year legislative seat are high in the tossup primary, with each campaign spending an unprecedented $40,000 for the direct-mail letters, radio commercials and public appearances that go with most any campaign.

The winner will face a Republican opponent in the fall elections, although the conventional wisdom here is that the primary is tantamount to election.

But the undercurrents, the whispers that in some cases have turned to shouts, have captured the fancy -- and disgust -- of voters here.

Ask the clerk at Eppes Drug Store on the square in Amelia County.

"Do you want somebody drunk or sober representing you up there in Richmond ?" she asked a coworker.

Anderson, 53, puffing a cigarette this week at his Farmville headquarters, reluctantly acknowledges past drinking problems, hoping a public accounting will end rumors about him being propped up at his General Assembly desk and staggering through the State Capitol.

"It's no secret," he said of his past drinking, at the same time saying he has got it licked. What's he doing to control it? "The best thing I know is don't drink," Anderson sighed.

Earlier this year, Abbitt Sr., at 77 still an active lawyer and legend who has crisscrossed the district to support his son, sent out blunt letters that addressed the issue.

". . . At least he will be there sober and attending to the business of the people," said Abbitt Sr., a patriarch of the region's once-powerful Harry F. Byrd Sr. machine.

Abbitt Jr., a partner in an insurance agency and an appointee to the State Water Control Board, says he regrets his father's frankness.

The issue already has spread over the region. Plain brown envelopes earlier began showing up around the five-county district south of Richmond. The envelopes contained reprints of news reports of two celebrated driving incidents during the past two years.

Anderson was charged with drunken driving in one incident and reckless driving in the second. He was placed in an alcoholic treatment program as a result of one charge.

Abbitt, who like Anderson won't publicly attack his opponent, says he's been the victim of even more scurrilous talk than has Anderson.

"I've never seen anything like it," Abbitt said, idly whacking flies with a rubber band as he talked in his cramped Farmville office, just down Business Rte. 460 from Anderson's headquarters.

"They say I've got a drinking problem worse than Claude's," Abbitt said. Abbitt said there are rumors that he killed his wife in 1982 and had the death listed as a suicide because his father is so powerful in the region. There have been what he calls ridiculous rumors that he was involved in drug dealing and was on food stamps when he was in college.

"You just get tough-skinned," Abbitt said.

"The latest rumor I've heard is he's gay," said Craig Beiber, Abbitt's campaign manager, in a "what next?" tone of voice. "You have to look at this in the context of Southside politics."

Many politicians say that behind the smears is the fallout of families once loyal to the segregationist Byrd machine and a generational change in which the sons of segregationist fathers are appealing to a constituency of blacks and others no longer controlled by former Byrd lieutenants.

"The days of automatic votes and buying votes are long over," Abbitt Jr. said. He said he makes no excuses for his father's segregationist views and says only that it's a new era for Virginia.

Perhaps not all new.

This week, Abbitt's campaign offered Benjamin Franklin Marshall tickets to a hot dog roast for Abbitt. Marshall, president of the all-black Prince Edward County Voters League and an Abbitt backer, declined. "I don't think we ought to go. We're going to turn off a lot of white people," Marshall said.

Anderson, a member of the House of Delegates for 18 years, is part of a declining number of rural Democrats who still control the legislature and rose to power in the aftermath of the Massive Resistance, Byrd's decade-long scheme to close public schools rather than integrate after the 1954 Supeme Court ruling.

Anderson, a hulking, good-natured good ol' boy who is a personal friend of and lieutenant to House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry County), has faced only token opposition since his first election in the late 1960s. He is chairman of the influential Privileges and Elections Committee and is a reliable vote for Philpott on most issues.

Anderson's supporters say his political clout will be lost if the Abbitts have their way. "The main issue for them the Abbitts is power," said Valentine W. Southall, himself from a politically prominent family in Amelia County.

Southhall raised a ruckus recently when, along with other local residents, he released a statement that derided Abbitt Jr. as a man with a "career devoid of ability and purpose" whose "private life is one of mediocrity and failure" and whose only goal is "hunting, fishing and a good time. His idea of leadership is being in the first canoe."

Supporters of Abbitt, an avid sportsman, shot back with a bumper sticker that reads "Leadership IS being in the first canoe."

Families have split sharply over the race. W. Bidgood Wall Jr., the 34-year-old editor of the Farmville Herald, supports Abbitt. His father, the publisher, supports Anderson. As a result the paper is not taking a stand in the race.

Robert Taylor, whose home manufacturing business sits beside the Appomattox River in Farmville, is out every day for Anderson, his friend and contemporary. At the same time, Taylor's son, Robert Jr., whose Appomattox River Co. canoe business is next door to his father's business, is out working for Abbitt. "His house is 50 feet from mine, too," the elder Taylor said. "We don't discuss it." However, he concedes that they do have a $50 bet riding on the outcome.