West Springfield High School cheerleader Sara E. Wolf listened intently yesterday as Wyatt B. Durrette clutched the lectern in front of her classroom and promised to work for merit pay for teachers if he is elected Virginia's next governor.

"If he wants to give teachers more money," said Wolf, 16, who intends to teach high school math someday, "more power to him."

Her government teacher, Connie Peduzzi, was more reserved, saying she supports merit pay only if a system is devised to dole out the rewards impartially. But Peduzzi gave the Republican candidate high marks for teaching skills after his 30-minute appearance before her senior honors class.

Meanwhile, a few miles away at Mount Vernon High School in eastern Fairfax County, Gerald L. Baliles, Durrette's Democratic opponent, lectured a 12th-grade class on the basics of Virginia government and the importance of doing their homework.

The Baliles and Durrette appearances underscored the importance the two candidates attach to the education issue -- and the political points they think they can score from it at the start of the school year. Durrette endorsed a package of education reforms this week, some of which Baliles said are already in place.

Dropping in on Durrette's classroom visit was Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman John F. Herrity, a Republican.

Meeting with reporters afterward, Durrette was flanked by Herrity and three Republican-appointed School Board members, Mary E. Collier, Joy G. Korologos and Anthony Cardinale.

Durrette, a former teacher, said he got the idea for a classroom visit from U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett, who is making seven well-publicized appearances this fall, "and my opponent picked it up from us."

Baliles, who married a teacher, said he taught classes during previous campaigns for attorney general and the state legislature. Aides said he planned the appearance weeks ago, but that the Democrat revised his plans this week, allowing reporters inside the classroom after Durrette announced the media was welcome in his classroom.

Mount Vernon High, where Baliles appeared, is the alma mater of Democratic incumbent Gov. Charles S. Robb, the man he hopes to succeed.

In the methodical style that has characterized his campaign appearances, Baliles outlined the structure of Virginia's government. Noted for his own fastidious preparation, he stressed that homework was a key to success in life after graduation as well.

Answering questions on a range of topics, Baliles supported Virginia's 21-year-old drinking age, underscored problems associated with uranium mining in the state and endorsed plans for a Coors beer plant in the Shenandoah Valley.

On education, he reiterated support for higher teacher salaries through a $500-million increase in state spending for education over the next two years and attacked Durrette for waffling on whether to support that funding, before deciding to back it.

After the hour-long class, students flocked around the candidate, peppering him with questions. He squeezed their shoulders and told a few: "Go get 'em."

Baliles told student David Theis, who carried a copy of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," that he wrote a term paper on the classic in high school. Theis, who had not made up his mind on the two candidates before Baliles appeared, said afterward, "I'm going to sign up and vote for him."

As one television crew strode in front of him and another pointed a camera a foot away from the students' faces, Durrette told the West Springfield High School government class that he is concerned about the "erosion of federalism" through the loss of state power to Washington. He spoke of wanting to make a difference as governor.

He spoke for 15 minutes to a second class, telling students his political aspirations do not extend beyond state office. "If you win, you really get to do some things that make life better," Durrette said.