To hear Democratic Del. Bernard S. Cohen and Republican John F. Sargent Jr. tell it, their race for the 46th District's seat in the Virginia House of Delegates is about being a champion of "the little guy."

Cohen, 53, who has represented the City of Alexandria for eight years, describes himself in populist terms, saying he has long represented "the average Joe" as a lawyer and a lawmaker.

And Sargent, a 25-year-old businessman who is already making his second bid for the House, portrays himself as a political underdog, up against a longtime incumbent who has the advantage in money and experience.

But for voters in the West End of Alexandria, this election will be more than a battle of big versus small. They will choose between two very different candidates: Cohen is a tested Democrat who is liberal on social issues and critical of the state's large financial institutions; Sargent is a neophyte Republican who is an aggressive businessman and a social conservative.

For now, city politicians say, Cohen appears to have the edge. But Sargent -- who at age 19 was holding down a job, going to college and raising a family -- is accustomed to doing things the hard way.

"As long as I can remember, I've always wanted to do something in the public arena," Sargent said. "I have a very strong desire to improve on what I see."

Cohen countered: "I don't think he's got anything to offer the people that I can't give. And I've got seniority. The realities of power politics are that seniority in a legislature is important." The House's most influential committees are dominated by senior members.

Personally and politically, Sargent and Cohen are a study in contrasts. Cohen came to the Washington area to attend law school after attending the City College of New York. He was active in community affairs for several years before seeking public office.

Sargent has lived in Alexandria since he was 4. He is vice president of Braddock Communications, a small Washington-based publishing firm. And he entered politics almost as soon as he graduated from the University of Virginia.

In 1985, at age 23, Sargent unsuccessfully challenged Del. Marian Van Landingham, who represents Alexandria's largely Democratic East End. He moved to the west side this year with an eye toward Cohen's seat.

Cohen survived a formidable challenge two years ago from Republican Anne H. Moore, who raised more than $50,000, including substantial contributions from business interests Cohen had opposed in the legislature. Cohen lost the fund-raising battle but got 54 percent of the vote.

In this year's contest, Sargent has criticized Cohen for favoring his professional interests over those of his constituency. Cohen's clients are frequently pitted against insurance companies or big businesses, and much of his legislative effort is aimed at banking and insurance institutions.

"The question is whether the current delegate is paying too little attention to the issues that concern his district and too much attention to the issues that concern his practice of law," Sargent said.

Cohen says voters have already rejected Sargent's argument. "I represent the average Joe," Cohen said. "If I were interested in money, I would work for the big-bucks people. John's a businessman, and if he gets elected, he's going to be putting in bills that would help businesses."

There are major differences between the two on social issues as well. Cohen has opposed legisation that would curtail abortion rights for women, and tried unsuccessfully to remove laws against homosexuality; Sargent is antiabortion and said he "has no problem" with the state's laws on sexual behavior.

Sargent points out that Cohen voted to raise the state sales tax this year, despite a promise not to support any increase until the tax on food and nonprescription drugs is repealed.

Cohen does not deny he changed his mind, but he said the extra taxes were necessary to pay for transportation improvements proposed by Gov. Gerald L. Baliles. "It bothered me" to vote for the tax rise, Cohen said. "But sometimes you have to compromise because something is better than nothing."

Sargent said he would have supported the tax increase had he been in the House this year. If he is elected, Sargent said, he would pay particular attention to education. He would like to see the state provide more day care services for young children and "explore the idea" of a year-round school term.

Cohen said he would continue work on legislation involving banks and insurance companies. During last winter's legislative session, he supported a law that requires both institutions to disclose more about their finances to consumers.

One thing that apparently will not be an issue in the campaign is Sargent's relative youth.

"I admire young people who want to get into politics," Cohen said. "If he won't say anything about my age, I won't say anything about his."