On this final weekend before the primary elections in Virginia, emotions are running high in several hotly contested intraparty races, but none is as heated as one here in the heart of Tidewater, where one challenger is accused of pistol-whipping the incumbent.

Del. William P. Robinson Jr. (D-Norfolk), the dean of the General Assembly's black caucus and co-chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is being challenged by former Circuit Court judge Luther C. Edmonds, who last month stood trial on charges he was the masked man who attacked Robinson shortly after his reelection two years ago. The proceeding ended in a mistrial.

What makes the situation even more bizarre is that the two men once were good friends. Edmonds calls Robinson's late father his mentor and role model and credits Robinson with helping him become a judge.

But that was in the past.

Tensions between the former friends apparently stem from a warning Robinson said he delivered to Edmonds three years ago to "become more circumspect" in an alleged affair with a bondswoman or face a disciplinary action on charges that he was favoring her in appearances in his court.

Edmonds denied that he was having an affair, but when he was summoned before the state's Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission in September 1996, he abruptly resigned from the bench after two witnesses had testified.

On Dec. 29, 1997, Robinson was repeatedly struck in the head and face with a gun outside his law office here. When police asked Robinson if anyone might have a grudge against him, he named Edmonds, who had conducted an abortive write-in campaign against him seven weeks earlier.

No witnesses placed Edmonds at the scene of the beating, but the circumstantial evidence included Robinson's blood on Edmonds's pistol and a piece of plastic found at the scene that prosecutors contend was torn off the attacker's car as it sped away -- plastic that matched a piece missing from the car Edmonds was driving that day.

In his defense, Edmonds's attorney suggested that the blood had been planted on the gun by police. Had he been the attacker, Edmonds noted, he would have had two weeks to remove the blood between the crime and the gun's recovery by police. Edmonds also said the car was a loaner and could have been damaged while driven by someone else.

After the beating, Robinson got a permit to carry a concealed weapon. On opening day of the 1997 legislative session, he caused a stir by walking onto the floor of the House of Delegates with a gun strapped to his waist.

Robinson stops short of saying that it was Edmonds who attacked him. "But the evidence certainly points a very strong finger of culpability at him," Robinson said.

The jury in the three-week trial last month deadlocked on charges against Edmonds of malicious wounding, using a gun and wearing a mask. The special prosecutor, Paul B. Ebert of Prince William County, said he intends to try Edmonds again.

Although they come from starkly different backgrounds, Robinson and Edmonds, both 56, became friends through Robinson's father, a civil rights pioneer in Virginia who was a professor of political science at Norfolk State University.

Edmonds was the third youngest of 21 children. He never knew his father or most of his siblings and grew up in a succession of foster homes and orphanages. He went to college -- Norfolk State -- on a football scholarship, where the elder Robinson exposed him to "the world of books and ideas" during visits to the Robinson home.

Robinson, who went to Morehouse College and Harvard Law School, became one of the region's most successful and flamboyant defense lawyers -- his sports car boasted the vanity tag "Uppity" -- and succeeded his father in the legislature in 1981.

The soft-spoken Edmonds graduated from Howard University Law School and came home to defend tenants against landlords as a staff attorney for Tidewater Legal Aid, where he became director in 1982.

In 1988, Robinson asked Edmonds if he would like to be a judge. Shortly thereafter, the legislature named Edmonds a General District Court judge. In April 1995, Edmonds was elevated to the Circuit Court in Norfolk and again, according to Edmonds, "Billy was very instrumental."

The paths of Robinson and Edmonds have not crossed on the campaign trail, but Robinson, facing his first opponent in eight years, said he is "going to civic leagues, knocking on doors, doing all the things my people tell me I need to do."

Edmonds, campaigning door-to-door in the Bowling Green public housing project here this week, criticized Robinson's frequent invocation of legislative privilege to delay court appearances for his clients, which Edmonds contends results in allowing drug dealers to remain on the streets. (A House Rules subcommittee is investigating whether Robinson has abused the privilege and has violated legislative ethics.)

But Bowling Green resident Sabrina Thorpe told Edmonds she will vote for him for practical reasons: He opposes placing tolls on some of the underwater tunnels that link the Hampton Roads area, while Robinson says tolls, or other new levies, are necessary to meet transportation needs.

CAPTION: ROBINSON

CAPTION: EDMONDS