Virginia Democrats promoted their plan to freeze real estate taxes for older homeowners today, even as some of them grumbled that their party chairman mangled the message last week when he unveiled their agenda for the crucial November elections.

Party Chairman Kenneth R. Plum, a state delegate from Reston seeking reelection, was unable to provide many details at a news conference a week ago when he announced a multi-pronged program for his candidates in the fall, when the entire General Assembly is on the ballot. The platform included the proposal to freeze real estate assessments for homeowners age 65 and older, essentially eliminating any increase in taxes as a result of rising home prices.

Today, at a press event at the Capitol, a fellow delegate and party strategist conceded that Democrats should have had a sharper message in laying out their agenda on school safety, teacher hirings, gridlock relief, tax cuts and health care.

"Sometimes the explanation doesn't get quite right," said Del. Glenn R. Croshaw (D-Virginia Beach), discussing the homeowners' tax relief plan. "This is not a question about, 'Ken didn't have the knowledge,' or, 'This plan wasn't in the works.'

"The question was he simply didn't have the message right," Croshaw said.

Some party regulars have complained for days that Plum's low-key style caught up with him at the news conference, but Plum said today that he spoke only in general terms intentionally, leaving it for other legislators from around Virginia to fill in the fine print.

"If we had laid it out in detail, it would have been a one-day story," said Plum, who skipped Croshaw's presentation to Virginia Beach area leaders. "It's intended to get some play," Plum said of his strategy.

At the time, Craig K. Bieber, Plum's right-hand person as the party's executive director, conceded his chairman had been badly prepared for the news conference.

Of Plum's performance, Chris LaCivita, Bieber's counterpart at the state Republican Party, said: "When you organize a turkey shoot, don't come dressed up as the turkey."

Others in the Virginia GOP have pounced on what they describe as zigzag messages from the Democrats in recent days, saying they are inconsistent in promoting possibly higher taxes for transportation one day and then proposing a tax break for seniors.

Croshaw said the freeze would save older homeowners $16 million a year. Under the plan, the state would more than compensate localities by sharing state income tax revenue with them--a step favored by Northern Virginia officials struggling to finance schools and roads in growing communities.

"New week, new message!" chortled Mark A. Miner, the press secretary to Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R). "What they're facing here is a major credibility problem."

Longtime Democratic activists say Plum--struggling against a GOP that controls all three statewide offices--suffers many of the same burdens faced by his predecessors, including tensions between conservative legislators and more liberal members of the party's central steering committee.

Some also complain about Plum's style. "There's a lot of grumbling among city and county chairs about his top-down style, the lack of involvement by people on the front end of things," said Christopher J. Spanos, a lobbyist and central committee member.

"It's tough as hell from a chairman's point of view," said Richmond lawyer Lawrence H. Framme III, who had the job from 1986 to early 1990. "You are seen as having responsibility for the affairs of the party, yet very little power to affect them."

Plum, for his part, was philosophical: "As a personality, I tend to be low-key, but operationally we're ratcheted up pretty high."

CAPTION: Del. Kenneth R. Plum said he wanted Democrats to get "some play."