For Northern Virginia Republicans, the 1989 governor's race has suddenly become the political equivalent of the Beltway at 5 o'clock.

Somebody's fender is going to get bent.

Even before Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.) shocked the GOP a week ago by declining to seek reelection next year, Northern Virginia could claim four GOP stalwarts whose eyes are on the governor's mansion in Richmond.

And now that Trible -- a Northern Virginia resident for 11 years -- is being mentioned as a possible contender, Republican activists and contributors across the region are facing difficult, potentially divisive choices.

"The term 'gridlock' describes it very well," said Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "All these potential candidates have strong support in the area. There is all sorts of jockeying going on, and it presents problems for party regulars."

To understand the political games that have already begun -- the gubernatorial election, after all, is only 25 months away -- it is necessary to know the players:Former state attorney general J. Marshall Coleman, the party's nominee for governor in 1981 and an unsuccessful contender for the lieutenant governor nomination in 1985.

Coleman, already running hard, has hired a political consultant and is producing weekly radio commentaries that are heard on 53 small stations around the state. Eighth District Rep. Stan Parris, a five-term congressman and unsuccessful contender for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 1985.

Party activists say that Parris, a formidable fund-raiser, plans to seek reelection next year and make another bid for governor the next. State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. of Alexandria, a 12-year veteran of the General Assembly whose legislative skills have won him unusual influence in a body dominated by Democrats.

Mitchell, who has been quietly sounding out GOP activists about a possible gubernatorial run, has never sought statewide office. House of Delegates Minority Leader R.R. (Andy) Guest Jr. of Front Royal, who has served 13 years in the legislature.

Guest's election to the party's top spot in the House last year was seen as an effort to boost his chances for governor. Trible, whose political roots are in the Hampton area -- which he served for six years in the House of Representatives -- but who has established ties to the Northern Virginia GOP while living in this area.

After potential rivals for governor cried foul last week, Trible decided to relinquish a $1.4 million political war chest he raised before quitting the Senate race. But he has pointedly left open the possibility of a gubernatorial bid.

Political activists and analysts said last week that this abundance of candidates is in some respects good news for Northern Virginia Republicans.

It underscores the region's increasing influence in state politics, they said, particularly as a source of talent and campaign funds.

But the prospect of choosing from these would-be candidates is, for many party loyalists, ominous.

The rivalry could splinter the region, activists said, diminishing its newfound political clout by dividing it among warring factions.

"Every person I know of who's running, I like," said Charles Weir, the GOP's 10th District chairman. "When you have a couple of hometown boys running for something, it's difficult. And when you have this many, it's particularly tough."

C. Daniel Clemente, a Fairfax businessman and active Republican fund-raiser, said that he has already been approached by several gubernatorial hopefuls but has not committed himself.

"The biggest problem is that you could get into a contest within the party and not come up with the candidate who is the most electable," Clemente said.

Noting that this area faces a multitude of growth-related problems, he said: "We are at a crossroads, and that crossroads demands that Northern Virginia produce the next governor. We cannot afford a crusade."

The people who feel the pressure most, of course, are the prospective contenders. Experienced party volunteers and money are the building blocks of any campaign, and the region has a fixed supply of both.

Some prominent contributors -- including Clemente and development industry leaders such as Dwight C. Schar and John T. (Til) Hazel -- have supported several of the contenders in the past.

"Asking me to choose between Marshall Coleman, Stan Parris and Paul Trible is like asking me which of my three children I like best," said one active GOP fund-raiser who asked not to be identified.

Mitchell, who is not widely known outside the region, understands how the traffic jam could affect him.

"I certainly intend to look at {a gubernatorial race}, but I just don't know what's out there," he said. "If circumstances break right, I might be interested. But if things break wrong, I might not be."

Sabato said, "These people are all dressed up and they may have someplace to go, but they're not sure where.

"Trible's quasi-entry into the governor's race has pushed the timetable up for everybody. With him out there, the maneuvering starts a lot earlier than it would have before. Normally the voters need a scorecard to follow the players, but in this case the players need a scorecard to follow themselves. It's a scrambled egg."

This potentially divisive strife could not come at a worse time for the Northern Virginia GOP, which is just beginning to emerge as a power in state affairs.

For years, downstate leaders derided the region for its liberal (by Virginia's conservative standards) bent, dubbing it "the People's Republic of Alexandria."

But in the statewide races of 1985, money from Northern Virginia poured into both Republican and Democratic coffers, upsetting the control over political fund-raising long exercised by Richmond's "Main Street" business community. Almost immediately, Northern Virginia developed clout.

"It used to be that a whisper down there on Main Street would kill off a candidate anywhere else in the state," said Weir, the GOP 10th District chairman. "Now, it sure is nice to see people coming up here for our support. What a turnaround."

Just last week, Clemente hosted a fund-raiser for several downstate Republicans seeking seats in the assembly, taking in about $40,000 in one night.

"Not bad, considering a lot of the people who showed up had never heard of some of these counties," Clemente said.

"I believe that if we're going to solve our problems in Northern Virginia, we're going to have to support candidates who have a responsible attitude toward us. We've got to take the lead," he said.

The fear among Republican leaders, however, is that internal bickering could undermine the region's position.

Northern Virginia GOP activists "are in a bind," said state Republican Chairman Donald W. Huffman of Roanoke. "Right now I'm counseling people to cool it until we see what works out.

"The question for Northern Virginia is, who out of that bunch of candidates can reach out for the rest of the state. But unless things settle down, the situation creates problems."