Virginia Rep. Stan Parris and Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr. get accused of lots of things, often by each other, but nobody calls either a wimp.

Parris, a former fighter pilot, is Capitol Hill's best known, sharpest-tongued critic of the District of Columbia. Moran, a former congressional aide who grew up boxing and playing football, has taken aim at targets ranging from the Catholic Church to drug dealers.

So when Moran challenged Parris for Northern Virginia's 8th District House seat, it didn't take long for the fur to fly. Parris compared Moran to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi and Moran offered to punch Parris's lights out. "I have no respect for him," Moran sniffs. Parris professes "no feelings about the mayor of Alexandria at all."

Moran, a Democrat, and Parris, a Republican, have started what promises to be a heavyweight, 15-round campaign, the most bitterly contested congressional race in the Washington area. It is much more than a grudge match; they are asking voters to choose between sharply contrasting philosophies of what a representative should be.

Parris, 61, is completing his 12th year in the House. He is a conservative who has made a name for himself mostly on such local matters as protecting the interests of federal workers and aggressively opposing the District on a range of issues.

At a recent candidate forum, Parris said he "is representing the enlightened self-interest of the people of Northern Virginia . . . . Is there anyone here who doubts I have had some beneficial impact on preventing statehood for the District?"

Moran, 45, is a comparative liberal who is trying to shift the focus to broader concerns. Moran agrees with Parris on most local issues -- he also opposes D.C. statehood, for example -- but stresses his support for abortion rights and criticizes Parris's record on environmental issues.

Also on the ballot is Robert T. Murphy, 42, of Manassas, a Libertarian Party activist running as an independent. He moved to the 8th District 18 months ago from Oklahoma, where he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate. In his first issues paper he called for the legalization of recreational drugs.

Although the advantages of incumbency are enormous for Parris, Moran has mounted an unusually vigorous challenge. He had raised more than $400,000 as of June 30 and says he will have enough money to run a sizable television campaign.

"Mr. Parris is obviously taking this challenger seriously," said Mark J. Rozell, a political scientist at Mary Washington College and a Vienna resident.

The 8th District includes Alexandria, southern Fairfax County, eastern Prince William County and northern Stafford County. Analysts characterize most of its voters as moderately conservative and election returns show it swings between Republicans and Democrats. George Bush and Ronald Reagan, both Republicans, carried the 8th District in the presidential elections; so did L. Douglas Wilder and Gerald L. Baliles, both Democrats, in their gubernatorial campaigns.

Although Virginia voters do not register by party, officials in both campaigns agree that a little less than 40 percent of the 8th District's voters are unshakably Democratic and a little more than 40 percent are unshakably Republican. Parris and Moran are fighting for the 20 percent in the middle.

Geographically, Moran begins with a dependable base in overwhelmingly Democratic Alexandria. Parris is strongest in the Springfield and Annandale sections of Fairfax County, where he began his political career more than 20 years ago. The most competitive areas are likely to be the Mount Vernon section of Fairfax, which has some Democratic pockets, and Prince William and Stafford counties, where neither candidate has deep ties.

But Parris's constituents know him well, and he has involved himself in nuts-and-bolts matters ranging from reducing the ridership requirements for car pool lanes on Interstate 95 to fighting expansion of the regional landfill and the D.C. Correctional Complex in Lorton. "Our polls show that {Parris's} strongest point is people believe he 'protects us' from the District of Columbia," Moran said.

Some call that a Parris weakness, saying some of his remarks constitute "D.C. bashing." Moran said that, based on Parris's record and rhetoric, "I know he's a racist." Parris denies that race is a factor in his quarrels with the District.

Moran also points out that Parris has run for governor twice without success and quips, "We have a congressman who doesn't know whether he wants to be governor of Virginia or mayor of the District of Columbia."

The group Environmental Action recently named Parris as one of its "dirty dozen" members of Congress, and Moran says Parris has placed business interests ahead of nature. Moran also charges that, as a member of the House Banking Committee, Parris supported legislation that led to the savings and loan crisis.

The major thrust of Moran's campaign is likely to be abortion rights, an issue that appeared to propel Wilder to victory in the governor's race last year. Parris has said he opposes abortion except when the life of the mother is threatened and that he supports federal funding for abortions for poor women in cases of rape, incest and threat to the life of the mother. Moran says he supports a Supreme Court decision that does not restrict abortion through the first six months of pregnancy.

Moran is regarded as a good campaigner whose record as mayor includes several popular victories. He led the fight for a publicly funded teen clinic in Alexandria that provides birth control counseling, over the objections of Catholic leaders. Moran is Catholic. When an Alexandria police officer was killed in a drug-related incident last year, Moran led a fight to evict suspected drug dealers from public housing.

Parris charges that Moran's mayoral record establishes him as a "tax-and-spend liberal" and that his personal ethics are open to question.

According to a state study, Parris notes, the per-capita tax burden in Alexandria is higher than in any other Virginia locality.

Parris says he thinks one of his most potentially damaging issues is ethics. In the early 1980s, Moran pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge and resigned from the City Council as part of a plea bargain. This year, a Moran political action committee accepted a $10,000 campaign contribution from a real estate developer with rezonings pending before the City Council, but returned the money after reporters questioned him about it.

"I think these are legitimate matters for the voters of the 8th District to consider when they elect a congressman," Parris said.

Local issues aside, the possibilities of a recession or a shooting war in the Persian Gulf raise questions about what voters will be thinking about on Election Day, Nov. 6.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in this campaign, and only part of it is the candidates," political observer Rozell said. "It's hard to predict the outcome. But it certainly is going to be a spectator sport."