In a small city where politics and turmoil often seem to run together, Alexandria Sheriff Michael E. Norris has mixed feelings about being back on the campaign trail.

"I was only shot at three times in my career as a police officer," said Norris, a Republican who is running against Jim Dunning for a third term as sheriff. "But I've certainly been fired upon plenty of times since I took this office."

Norris has not had many quiet times since he became the city's sheriff in 1977. Supporters and critics agree that the office he inherited was a mess: Jobs were doled out by patronage and state corrections officials thought little of the way that the office ran the antiquated city jail. And they agree that Norris moved quickly to clean up the situation.

"Eight years ago, the office was a wreck," said Dunning, who is running in the Nov. 5 election as an independent because he is barred as a federal employe from conducting a partisan campaign. "He brought in a lot of good people and made immediate improvements. After that, though, I think he lost interest in the office."

Dunning charges that Norris, a voluble man who frequently has entangled himself in controversy during the past few years, is more interested in his own publicity than in running the sheriff's office. Dunning won the endorsement of the Democratic Party in June, but some leading party officials have yet to commit themselves to what most politicians in town expect to be a tough campaign.

"I'm supporting Jim. We go way back," said Mayor James Moran. Dunning bought his house from Moran several years ago, and he is married to a distant relative of the mayor's. But neither Dunning nor Moran will say if and when Moran will campaign for him.

"We just can't say what the schedule will look like," Moran said. "It's too soon to tell."

Norris, who was a strong supporter of Moran in Moran's campaign for election last spring, describes himself as offering leadership, experience and a plan for the future. He accuses Dunning of having no issues.

"All Dunning can do is take the low road," said Norris, who rejects the charge that he has lost interest in the sheriff's job. "He has no reason for running; he has no experience. He is reduced to coming at me personally. I am the first to admit I am far from traditional, but I don't think many things in Alexandria are traditional."

Norris, who has proposed several controversial ideas during his tenure in office, such as a suggestion currently before the City Council that Alexandria use a private airplane to help defray the cost of moving prisoners around the state and the country, said that the only issue his opponents have is him.

"They are going after me as a person, because they cannot touch me on the issues," he contended.

Norris, 37, was often in the news last year after he was named as a principal figure in a widely publicized police drug investigation in Alexandria. A special grand jury dismissed all allegations in the matter as baseless.

The sheriff's office has a $4 million annual budget. It oversees security at the city courthouse, runs the local jail and has 80 deputy sheriffs who serve more than 65,000 court papers each year.

Dunning, 35, was a federal probation officer and now administers a program that provides treatment and supervision for drug-dependent federal offenders.

"Norris likes to give the air of professionalism," said Dunning. "But I don't think it is true. His idea that the city should use an airplane to transport prisoners is typical of the grandiose schemes. Why should corrections be a profit-making enterprise for the government?"

Norris has proposed using the airplane to ferry prisoners, for a fee, for other jurisdictions. He said that the plane would save on travel costs for the sheriff's office, which logs about 84,000 miles a year delivering prisoners.

Dunning has been critical of the size and cost of the $16 million jail that the city is building. Norris has been a chief advocate of the new jail, which will include 100 beds to be used by federal prisoners in the custody of U.S. marshals.

"I just don't see why we should be jailer for the metropolitan area," said Dunning.

Norris, who admits to a fondness for advanced technology and has a voice-programmable toy robot to roam about his office, said that Dunning's vision is shortsighted.

"I stand for the future," Norris said. "There are always people that will bother . . . . But I am a competent professional and that's what we need here. The sheriff's office should be run like a business, not like a political workshop."