Let the games begin!

It may not be Hillary vs. Rudy, but if recent exchanges are an indication, next year's expected U.S. Senate showdown between Democrat incumbent Charles S. Robb and former governor George Allen (R) won't exactly be a scholarly debate between two Virginia gentlemen.

Consider recent fund-raising letters mailed by the respective campaigns.

In a mailing timed for Flag Day and the Fourth of July, Allen asked for "at least $50 right away" to offset "entrenched forces working against us, attempting to keep one of the most powerful political families in American history in office." (Robb is a son-in-law of former president Lyndon B. Johnson.)

Enclosed in the letter was a small American flag, for placement in "your car or window." Allen added that "when I look at the flag, I see the red stripes and think of the blood of our veterans that was shed to preserve our liberty."

Craig K. Bieber, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, called that appeal "tasteless and inappropriate. It would have been more appropriate had Allen actually served in the military."

Bieber added that Allen "could have volunteered" for military service, as did Robb, who served with the Marines in Vietnam.

Allen spokesman Jay Timmons responded that it was "pathetic" that a Robb spokesman "would question the patriotism of any American. One does not have to serve to understand the sacrifices our veterans have made for our freedom."

Allen was a student at the University of Virginia in the early 1970s, when young men were drafted according to lottery numbers. Chris LaCivita, the executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, and soon-to-be Allen campaign manager, said Allen's number was "something like 232, and the highest number called was 90" in 1972, the last year the draft was in force.

"It's ridiculous to say anyone who never served can't be patriotic," LaCivita went on. "Does that same criticism apply to Mark Warner (a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 2001) and all of the women who haven't served, but are just as patriotic?"

Bieber didn't back down.

"Allen was the one who opened the door by making the reference," Bieber said. "It's ultimately up to the voters to decide whether they think it's an issue. But trying to raise money on the blood of veterans--I am going to hold him accountable."

In his own fund-raising letter, Robb began by making his intentions clear. "First, I'm running," he wrote. "I know my opponent and some of his supporters have tried to convince the media that I was planning to retire, but they're wrong--and they're in for a fight."

His formal announcement, however, won't come until March.

Robb conceded that Allen, as an immediate past governor, may have an early lead in the polls, as he did when he first ran in 1988.

The Democrat also said he expected to be outspent, as he was by Oliver L. North in 1994, although not again by $15 million. But in seeking GOP money now, Robb said, "Republicans have made me their top target for 2000."

The Robb letter ended with a very un-Robb like boast that "Robb is ready to rumble."

Duel Calls for Rigor in Schools

Other Virginians may have gotten a tiny taste of themes in the 2000 race, hearing from Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) and former governor George Allen (R) in scheduled back-to-back appearances before a group of educators in Charlottesville.

Allen and Robb were scheduled to address the third annual Policy Institute at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. Robb was up first on Tuesday, Allen 24 hours later, also at luncheon.

According to prepared texts sent by their offices, both candidates struck their expected moderate-to-conservative notes about the role that federal, state and local government should play in education, from kindergarten to post-graduate work.

Robb, who as governor in the early 1980s plowed millions of dollars into education and whose youngest daughter, Jennifer, is studying to be a math teacher, said the feds have a role to play but stressed he was "extremely sensitive to the fact that education is primarily a state and local responsibility."

He added: "We cannot--and should not--legislate parental involvement. But the federal government can be a constructive partner."

Robb called for an end to "social promotions" from grade to grade and called for greater school accountability and more rigorous teacher standards.

Meanwhile, Allen issued a call for a "more truly inclusive" educational system than that of the era of Jefferson, whom Robb also had invoked.

Allen, too, said public schools should be more accountable and he pointed to the statewide Standards of Learning launched on his watch as governor in the mid-1990s.

He pointed to the recent experience in Alexandria, where students of all backgrounds showed dramatic improvements in test scores over last year.

"Keep the pressure up to demand excellence in our schools," Allen said in a draft of his speech.

Higher Taxes Not the Cure for Roads

Robert E. Martinez, who served as state transportation secretary under former governor George Allen, told a special transit commission the other day that current funding levels are inadequate to meet all of Virginia's needs, but he later called The Washington Post to underscore his opposition to higher taxes to pay for improvements.

"Sure, there's never enough money for projects that everybody asks for," Martinez said. But, he added, "I don't believe in raising taxes."

Several Democrats have challenged that view, saying the newly formed commission, appointed by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), should seriously consider special taxes or fees to help Northern Virginia commuters.