The campaign has been brief, but a Jan. 8 special election for a Virginia House of Delegates seat will offer south and central Arlington voters a choice among three candidates who hold markedly different views on issues ranging from the state budget to abortion.

The seat became vacant with the death in November of Del. Warren G. Stambaugh, a Democrat who represented the 49th District for 17 years.

The candidates are Democrat L. Karen Darner, a speech therapist in Arlington schools, Republican Alice R. Tennies, a longtime school volunteer and activist, and Libertarian Richard E. Sincere Jr., an editor and writer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The three have been waging quiet campaigns in which mailings, phone banks and other tactics to turn out supporters will be pivotal in what is expected to be a low turnout election.

The 49th District covers central and South Arlington, including neighborhoods such as Ashton Heights, the highrise apartment complexes of Crystal City and Pentagon City, and the longstanding black communities of Nauck and Arlington View. There are about 29,000 registered voters in the district.

All three candidates appear to have the ability to draw on different networks of supporters. Campaign budgets vary: Tennies hopes to raise $20,000; Darner, $10,000; Sincere, $5,000.

Darner, 45, who recently returned from a Peace Corps assignment in Jamaica and now lives in the Barcroft neighborhood, comes into the race with the odds in her favor.

Although there is no party registration in Virginia, Democrats say they outnumber Republicans in the district 3 to 1.

A former Richmond legislative aide, Darner has a lengthy civic and political re'sume' and has served at various times on the county planning commission and as president of the Arlington League of Women Voters, the Arlington Education Association, which represents most of the school system's teachers, and the Mental Health Association of Northern Virginia.

A network of supporters from her community and Democratic Party activities helped Darner gain a nearly 2 to 1 victory last month in the Democratic primary over Warren Stambaugh's widow, Rosemary.

"I am committed to advancing personal freedom and equal opportunity. I want to continue the fight against discrimination," Darner said at a recent candidates debate before the Lyon Park Civic Association. "Examine my re'sume'," she said. "I started in this community, served with and worked with lots of people in the community and will serve it well."

Tennies, 46, is a 13-year resident of Ashton Heights and a former federal employee who served as director of the data services center for the Department of Agriculture. She won the Republican nomination by defeating trading firm executive J.D. Millar, and said that she also can call on supporters from her years of school and community work. She and her husband, Richard, a commercial airline pilot, have two teenage daughters.

A longtime school activist who was honored in 1987 as "Volunteer of the Year" by Page Elementary School, Tennies volunteered in Democrat John G. Milliken's unsuccessful 1986 congressional campaign because "he was a neighbor."

She has been best known recently as a vocal opponent of the schools' family life education program, saying the process had little community input. She served on the citizens committee that developed the program but wrote a minority report criticizing the curriculum as lacking absolute moral values and undermining parental authority.

She founded the Arlington Citizens Council, which urges parents to remove their children from the program.

But Tennies said she is "not a one-issue candidate" and instead has focused her campaign on what she believes is Democratic mismanagement of the state budget and the need for a Republican voice to balance Democratic domination of Arlington politics.

No Republicans hold any county elected offices, and Tennies said electing one would be "like when you go to the doctor to get a second opinion. If we could have two different kinds of voices speaking for Arlington, it would be a benefit."

Sincere, 31, who lives in a rented Pentagon City condominium, comes into the campaign with two agendas. A member of the Libertarian Party, which he said has several dozen dues-paying members in Arlington, Sincere is opposed to most government regulation, from local restrictions on campaign signs to the federal minimum wage law.

"As a lifelong iconoclast, I plan to stir things up in Richmond. No sacred cow will be safe from scrutiny and criticism," he said in a statement, adding that he would work to make "none of the above" an authentic ballot choice.

Sincere also is running as an openly gay candidate. A co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association of Georgetown University, Sincere said he would work to abolish the state's sodomy law and end discrimination against gay people.

"Legislators have been able to ignore the fact that homosexuals are discriminated against in Virginia. They won't be able to ignore it any more because one of their colleagues will be openly gay," he said.

All three candidates agree that the state budget, for which a $1.9 billion shortfall is predicted, will be a major concern.

Darner said she agreed with the initial budget cuts proposed by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, but is concerned that more recent proposals, such as the one this week on education, may cut too deeply.

"I'm not going to rule out raising taxes" if the alternative is cutting health services, care for the mentally ill or substantially increasing classroom sizes, she said. "To turn your back on raising revenue sometimes is to turn your back on some services that may be needed," she said.

Tennies said the budget can be balanced without raising taxes and criticized the growth of the state budget and bureaucracy under the Democrats in the past decade. She said budget reform is needed to allow more time for local input into the decision-making process. More revenue could be raised if the state is more aggressive in collecting fees and fines, she said.

"We can prevent future budget shortfalls" but "must create a more entrepreneurial, competitive, cost-conscious state government," Tennies said at the Lyon Park debate.

She opposes the governor's latest education cut proposals and said the state instead should use money from its contingency fund to make up the difference.

Libertarian Sincere favors cutting taxes and spending by a fourth and turning over some government functions to private enterprise.

"The private sector creates wealth. The public sector absorbs it. I say we have to cut the budget even more," Sincere said. "An over-reliance on government produces all the ills of society . . . teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, the loss of self-esteem."

Abortion is another issue on which there is clear disagreement.

Darner said she supports a woman's right to abortion and would oppose legislation requiring parental notification in cases where a minor sought an abortion.

Tennies said the only instances in which she clearly would allow an abortion are in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is endangered. She said she would support a parental notification bill.

Asked at a civic association debate whether she would support legislation to repeal the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that gave women the right to abortion, she said, "It depends on what the legislation is."

Sincere said he would not support legislation to repeal Roe v. Wade, but would support parental notification legislation.

The three candidates agree that localities should be able to have elected rather than appointed school boards.

Darner and Sincere are opposed to the Dillon Rule, which gives localities only those powers that the state legislature specifically grants. Tennies favors easing the rule in areas such as zoning and licensing, but said she does not want localities given more taxing power.

There is disagreement over whether too much of Northern Virginia's tax revenue goes to support other parts of the state.

"We should get back what we pay," Sincere said. "We should not be subsidizing other parts of the state simply because they can't pull their own weight."

Tennies said the legislature should move toward returning to Northern Virginia a proportionate share of the tax revenue the area sends to Richmond. She acknowledged that disparities exist in the state in areas such as education, but said needy localities "should be encouraged to do more themselves" and that state school funding formulas do not take into account Northern Virginia's large population of immigrant students who can't speak English.

Darner said her concern, because of state cuts, would be retaining what Arlington already receives. "I also have some sympathy for other parts of the state. I've been there," she said.

"Some localities have no industrial complex or research program that will bring in employment that can serve as a tax base," she said. "I'm glad Northern Virginia is able to provide some assistance."