Democratic challenger David M. Smith hasn't seen Rep. D. French Slaughter Jr. since their campaign began, but Virginia's 7th Congressional District has heard and seen plenty from both campaigns.

Slaughter, banking on his six years in office and the district's record of electing Republicans, consistently has refused to debate Smith, a Winchester minister who also sells solar energy equipment. The two candidates never have appeared on the same platform.

However, the well-financed campaigns have traded barbs in radio commercials, campaign fliers and news releases in this far-flung district that stretches from the Shenandoah Valley to the Richmond and Washington suburbs.

Smith, armed with nearly $340,000 raised with the help of his father and campaign treasurer, Del. Alson H. Smith Jr. (Winchester), the state's top Democratic fund-raiser, has run a feisty campaign, and the federal budget crisis has made even Republicans with traditionally safe seats wary.

Some politicians said that Smith's radio commercials and the budget crisis have given his campaign a boost.

"If you'd asked me two weeks ago, I'd have said David Smith was way behind. But it's a horse race now," said Gainesville Democrat Robert L. Cole, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. "The president shutting the government down didn't help any of the Republicans."

Slaughter campaign officials said their poll taken last week shows Slaughter ahead 55 percent to 26 percent, with 19 percent undecided.

Smith's pollster, David Petts, disputed those numbers, although he would not give out figures from the survey he conducted last week. "We show the margin much narrower, and Slaughter is below 50 percent . . . . There's a real potential for an upset," Petts said.

Smith, 34, has made political hay with radio commercials and mailings attacking Slaughter's vote against imposing enormous civil penalties on savings and loan operators. Slaughter called a news conference this week to attack what he called Smith's "scurrilous and deceptive" advertisements and "unrelenting attack on me personally."

"Congress never voted to lessen penalties," Slaughter said. In fact, Congress approved an amendment calling for the $1 million-a-day penalities, even though Slaughter and 40 other members of Congress voted no.

Slaughter campaign manager Tony Likins complained that Smith's radio ad also had incorrectly characterized Slaughter's vote in favor of the overall S&L bill by calling it a "vote to bail out the S&L crooks" and a "hidden tax" of $5,000 on every family.

The charges mean that Smith "blew his chance for a debate . . . . No one is going to put the congressman's integrity on the stage for {Smith} to throw mud at," Likins said.

Responded Smith, "The truth can sometimes be painful . . . . {Slaughter} is out of touch . . . unwilling to debate."

For much of the campaign, Slaughter, 65, has relied on surrogates to represent him, in part because he has been held in Washington by the budget crisis.

Meanwhile, Smith has been running from pre-dawn stops in commuter parking lots to evening fund-raisers, meeting voters and trying to attract media coverage.

"He let me define the issues, and I've done it," Smith said.

Now that Congress has adjourned, the incumbent's campaign is kicking into full gear, with television commercials and direct mailings that attack Smith's plan to mandate the use of solar energy as unrealistic.

Slaughter argues that his constituents are more interested in his votes in favor of a strong defense than in Smith's allegations. Slaughter supports the B-2 Stealth bomber program, while Smith opposes it.

Slaughter's campaign emphasizes the candidate's experience: He represented Culpeper for 20 years in the state legislature and his fliers claim he has helped more than 8,000 constituents during the last six years.

The representative made local headlines last spring when he boycotted black South African leader Nelson Mandela's speech to Congress. Slaughter, who fought public school integration in the 1950s, said he objected to Mandela's refusal to renounce violence.

Many federal workers who live in the district's Washington end were likely to disapprove of the congressman's votes against every budget proposal and his vote to sustain the veto that led to the shutdown, but Slaughter said further tax increases were unacceptable.

"We have suffered a great deal in having a government that discourages the economy," he said.

Such rhetoric may help Slaughter attract many suburbanites, and his conservatism on such issues as abortion -- he opposes it in but a handful of circumstances -- has kept him in step with the farmers that make up the district's heart, his strategists said.

In addition, while Smith is spending money as fast as he gets it, Slaughter had $180,000 left this week of the about $400,000 he had raised this year and has enough money to run television spots in all the major markets in his district.

As the campaign enters its final phases, both sides are concentrating on getting their voters to the polls.