This is the first of two profiles of candidates for Virginia's 8th District congressional seat.

Always, Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr. has fought.

As a boy in the Boston suburbs, Moran learned to box under the demanding hand of his father. As a politician, he repeatedly has taken on risky, emotional causes and struggled to overcome self-inflicted wounds.

But never before has Moran had a fight like this. Tuesday, Moran squares off with Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) for Northern Virginia's 8th District congressional seat. Their campaign has been a rhetorical brawl, with Moran the hard-punching underdog. Now it is the last round, and political judges say Moran is closing in but still behind.

So, why is this guy grinning and talking cocky? "This has been the most exciting, challenging thing I've done in my life to date," Moran said this week.

"I've sensed myself growing during the campaign, and I think I'm going to turn out to be a much better congressman than people expect."

Grand words from a man who resigned six years ago from the Alexandria City Council in disgrace, convicted of conflict of interest. And these are big plans for someone who spent 1989 planning to skip this year's House race.

But with charm, audacity and a bit of Irish luck, Moran has made himself an institution in Alexandria and a presence in the Washington area. He has compiled a list of achievements, formidable mistakes and memorable outbursts.

Consider, for instance, Moran's high-profile response when an Alexandria police officer was killed last year in a drug-related incident in a city housing project. Moran seemed to make every television newscast, demanding a law enforcement crackdown. In part at his urging, federal officials made it easier to evict suspected drug dealers from public housing. And residents of Alexandria's drug zones were soon praising city efforts to clean things up.

"The drug thing was a personal affront to Jim," said Alexandria Vice Mayor Patricia S. "Patsy" Ticer, a Democrat and Moran supporter. "It was like, 'This is my city, and how dare they?' He had the courage of his convictions, and he carried through."

But former Alexandria City Council member Carlyle C. "Connie" Ring, a Republican whom Moran defeated for mayor in 1988, remembers that a year before the officer's shooting, Moran helped sidetrack several anti-drug proposals Ring supported. "Politically, Jim is very much an opportunist and is not very reliable about his positions," Ring said.

All his life, Moran, 46, has been close to the rough-and-tumble of politics. He grew up in Natick, Mass., in what he describes as an almost stereotypical Irish Catholic home. Moran's father was a football coach and his mother a homemaker; he is the oldest of seven children. He was an altar boy at St. Patrick's parish, attended Catholic schools and married his high-school sweetheart, who was head cheerleader. They later were divorced and he has married again.

Moran's father believed in discipline and the Democratic Party. "He always thought it was the Democrats who opened up opportunities for immigrants and others," he said.

Moran came to Washington for a career in government. By the late 1970s, he had joined the staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee. In 1979, he won a seat on the Alexandria City Council.

He quickly established himself as a rising political star and became a stockbroker for nine years. But in 1984, his public career crashed in flames.

When the city considered selling a prime piece of real estate, Moran cast a vote that aided a developer with whom he had a business relationship. A rival developer initiated an investigation, and Moran pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge. Though his conviction was later set aside, Moran was forced to leave office.

Moran now says he regrets both the incident and his plea bargain. He argues that no money changed hands and that his action was naive but not criminal. "It would probably behoove me to say I was guilty and I'm sorry and let it go," he said. "But I don't honestly feel that way."

Those memories were revived this fall when Moran accepted a $10,000 political contribution from a developer who had business before the City Council; Moran returned the money when questioned about it. Parris has hammered at these incidents, and critics say they raise questions about Moran's ethics. "To Jim, what is necessary in order to win is acceptable," Ring said.

But in 1985, only 18 months after he resigned, Moran regained the confidence of Alexandria voters. With the city in an uproar over allegations of wrongdoing by the police chief, Moran challenged Alexandria's veteran mayor, who was the chief's leading critic. In a remarkable comeback, Moran won handily.

Since then Moran has been his city's undisputed political leader. In 1987, he headed an effort to open a city health clinic that distributes contraceptives to teenagers, the first such facility in the Washington area. Last year he concentrated on his fight against drugs, which included an anti-loitering law that was struck down on constitutional grounds.

He also has made news with his hot temper, frequently making remarks he later regrets. Shortly after the police officer was killed last year, for example, Moran said the city should evict drug dealers even if it meant breaking the law: "I suggested we act illegally and let the law catch up." He later apologized.

Moran's commitment to politics ended his business career last year. Since then he has been a full-time mayor and congressional candidate, surviving on his $25,000-a-year mayoral salary and by liquidating his pension money from previous jobs.

But Moran says the prospect of serving in the House is worth the sacrifice. "I'm not happy making compromises," Moran said. Serving in the House "is what I've always wanted most. I can't imagine anything I'd rather be doing."