The big rematch in the Virginia state Senate's 34th District -- Republican Sen. John W. Russell versus Democrat Emilie Miller -- may be the best-kept political secret in Northern Virginia.

In 1983, when longtime state Sen. Adelard L. (Abe) Brault decided to retire from his Fairfax County seat, Miller and Russell ran a photo-finish race to succeed him.

Each had deep roots in the central Fairfax district -- Russell as mayor of Fairfax City and Miller as a Democratic activist and aide to Brault -- and both had plenty of help from their respective party leaders, who were anxious to pick up a new senator.

Russell won that round by a whisker. The margin was about 300 votes, or 1 percent of the ballots cast. This year Miller is back, hoping to reverse the outcome on Nov. 3.

There is no dearth of issues in this campaign. Miller charges that Russell "has no record, basically," and that "the only thing he can take credit for is that he sat there for four years."

Russell counters that his quiet approach "may not get my picture in the paper, but it gets things done."

Miller and Russell say that despite their history and differences, one of their biggest problems is getting the public to take notice.

The bitter fight between Republican John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale) has overshadowed the Russell-Miller race, which political activists say could go either way.

"It's very difficult to get the voters' attention," Russell said recently. Moore and Herrity "have all the headlines, all the campaign workers, all the money. They've almost taken up all the road space for political signs."

The district Russell and Miller seek to represent is the geographic heart of Fairfax County.

It stretches from Arlington on the east to just west of Fairfax City, and roughly from the town of Vienna on the north to I-95 on the south.

Like much of Fairfax County, it is predominantly white, upper-middle- income and highly transient. Federal workers and retirees are an influential constituent group.

Though Miller has raised an impressive amount of money -- about $50,000 to Russell's $30,000 -- she readily admits that the political spotlight is focused elsewhere.

Miller is trying to use that relative obscurity to her advantage.

"When I tell people that I'm running against the incumbent, a glazed look comes over their eyes and they ask, 'Who's that?' " Miller said. "They just don't know him. When I'm an incumbent, I'm going to take steps to see that people have at least heard my name."

If Miller has her way, the campaign will focus on what she says is Russell's lack of accomplishments and identity.

In quick succession she lists her points: During the past four years, Russell introduced 11 pieces of legislation, of which four passed; a newspaper survey rated Russell near the bottom of the Senate's 40 members in effectiveness; Russell once wrote to a constituent that as a member of the General Assembly's minority party, "my hands are tied and I am ignored."

"When I worked for Senator Brault, we not only put in bills, we worked to get them passed," Miller said. "I know how to build coalitions. I've worked with people across the district and across the state. I know how to get things done."

But after a term in Richmond, Russell's view of how the Senate works differs from Miller's.

He said that a Democratic senator from rural Southwest Virginia once told him, "You don't talk like, act like or vote like anybody I've ever met from Northern Virginia." Russell said the remark was intended as a high compliment.

"My predecessor {Brault} was very abrasive, arrogant and disliked," Russell said. "I believe in teamwork. Northern Virginia cannot stand alone. I'm a conservative individual. I can understand problems from other parts of the state and help people out. And I've gotten bipartisan support."

Russell readily acknowledges that he did not introduce a torrent of new legislation.

"Putting in all those bills is for the birds," he said. "I don't see any need of introducing duplicate bills for every idea just to get your name on something. It's a waste of time and money."

And he said that having less campaign money than Miller, an unusual disadvantage for an incumbent, does not particularly worry him.

"I find it very difficult and embarrassing to ask someone for money," he said. "I'm looking for votes, not money."

These political differences reflect the candidates' contrasting personalities and backgrounds.

Russell, 64, grew up poor on a southern Illinois farm and still refers proudly to his "farm background." He is a retired federal employe, having spent 30 years as a civilian intelligence analyst, and he still has the craggy face and unassuming manner of a country farmer.

Miller, 51, grew up in Chicago, worked for several years as a fashion buyer and favors smartly tailored suits.

Her computer-generated list of campaign aides includes an "issues director" and a "civic association liaison." The state's three top Democrats -- Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Attorney General Mary Sue Terry -- have said they will campaign for her.

Miller and Russell agree that the number one issue with most voters is traffic problems, and the two said they would do everything they could to funnel more state money into Northern Virginia road projects. Russell also said he would like the state to spend more on mental health programs and day care, but Miller said Russell has not supported legislation to advance these programs.

Russell has declined to respond to much of Miller's criticism, saying, "There's no honor in being the dirtiest pig in the pen."

Miller, however, said that pointing out what she called Russell's lackluster record is fair and reasonable campaigning.