John Sargent has never been a man to sit on the sidelines. Married at 18, he was a college graduate, the father of two boys, and a publishing executive by the time he was 22. Now, at the age of 23, the Alexandria Republican has decided to run for the Virginia House of Delegates.

Running hard in the 45th District in eastern Alexandria for the seat currently held by his Democratic opponent, Marian Van Landingham, Sargent said he aims to make up for his lack of political experience with drive and attentiveness. He readily admits that his youth -- he said he is the state's youngest candidate -- is the obstacle he faces.

"I know I have to convince people I am ready for this job," Sargent said. "But my experience is just as valuable as hers. I have to provide for a family and I run a company. I think voters will recognize that my concerns are their concerns as well."

Sargent is a vice president of Braddock Publications, a small firm that publishes several federal directories and information books and does publishing for large corporations as well.

Most local political observers expect Sargent to face a tough fight with an opponent who has gained more than 60 percent of the vote each of the last two times she ran for the office. Some of his supporters believe that people want new faces in city politics, while others regard this race as a way for voters to become acquainted with the candidate.

Van Landingham, who like Sargent has begun canvassing door to door in the district, said her opponent does not take the office seriously enough, and that he should serve time on civic committees and local boards before trying to represent the city in Richmond.

"I think citizens of Alexandria have a simple choice," said Van Landingham, who has been a delegate for the past four years. "Do they want to keep someone in Richmond who is building seniority and clout for them, or do they want to start over with a person who has never shown any commitment to public service in the city?"

Van Landingham has been elected to her job three times in the last four years -- there was a special election in 1982 because of redistricting. The 45th district runs roughly from the Potomac River to Quaker Lane and is bounded by the Capital Beltway on the south and Four Mile Run on the north.

A painter best known in Alexandria as the driving force behind the establishment of the Torpedo Factory as a center for artists to work and display, Van Landingham has devoted much of her time in Richmond to activism in the areas of consumer affairs and housing.

As a member of the Mining and Minerals Committee, she has been vocal in her opposition to the mining of uranium in the state. Fairfax County's Occoquan Watershed has a rich deposit of uranium.

Van Landingham says she wants more state money spent on education. Like Sargent, she contends that Alexandria, which has more poor and minority students than many other jurisdictions, gets a particularly bad shake in funding formulas.

Sargent calls himself a moderate Republican and says he believes in "limited government but one with compassion." He opposes tax increases and says that education and transportation issues are vital to the city of Alexandria.

"We fail badly in the area of education," he said. "The disparity in test scores among blacks and whites is terrible. Let's pay our teachers decently so they will stay here and be motivated."

He said that in order to bring black scores into line with those of white students in the city he would urge volunteers to tutor children after school.

Asked about starting his life so forcefully at such a young age, Sargent laughed.

"I think if you are out there working and involved you get more out of what you are doing," he said. "I could never see why so many people spent so much time drifting. I'm lucky that I know what I want to do."