Virginia's summer-long debate on the politics of gridlock--who is lucky enough to get new highways and unlucky enough to pay for them--has handed both major parties limited opportunities for gains in legislative races and some real electoral risks, Republicans and Democrats said.

Democrats want to tap commuter resentment about the day-to-day hassles of Capital Beltway area traffic and for weeks have urged a reluctant Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) to pump significant new sums into the region's transportation network.

"It's big in my district. It's huge," said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D), a 20-year Senate veteran whose Fairfax County district includes a piece of the Beltway and feeder lines such as Braddock and Rolling roads and Little River Turnpike.

But legislators from the Washington suburbs make up about 25 percent of the 140-member General Assembly, which is split just about evenly along party lines.

"It's a north-of-the-Occoquan strategy!" crowed Ray Allen, an adviser to several GOP campaigns who is opening new fronts on issues such as education, crime and tax relief.

Allen and his team of experienced Republican organizers say the races for five open seats in the House of Delegates highlight the limitations of the other side's push on transportation.

Even if the GOP concedes the seat being vacated by Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D), of Fairfax County, as reliably Democratic, Republicans still have four other races--in Hampton Roads, the Northern Neck, the Southwest and the Culpeper area of central Virginia--that are well outside the Beltway and probably leaning their way.

Republicans hope to exploit the reality that Metrorail subsidies, HOV lanes and car pools simply are not make-or-break issues for rural constituents and those who represent them in Richmond.

For instance, Albert C. Pollard Jr. (D), who is locked in a tight race for the open House seat on the Northern Neck, said his election is dominated by down-home issues such as environmental protection and crab harvests in the nearby Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

"I agree with the governor," Pollard said. "We should not have a tax increase to solve our transportation woes," as some business leaders in Northern Virginia have suggested.

Similarly, Del. J. Paul Councill Jr. (D-Southampton), co-chairman of the House Education Committee, said, "We hear very little in my area about transportation."

Instead, the burning issue in Councill's district, on the right flank of Southside Virginia's pine-and-peanut country, is an acute shortage of teachers.

"The schools are desperate for warm bodies," said Councill, 77, who ranks seventh in House seniority and is unopposed for reelection.

Northern Virginia Democrats believe transportation could give a winning edge to candidates in closely competitive races, including that of Leslie L. Byrne, who is trying to return to the legislature by unseating Sen. Jane H. Woods of Fairfax, a moderate Republican.

Gilmore's confrontational stance toward Northern Virginians, who he says favor higher taxes for transportation, also could bruise Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr., another moderate GOP member from McLean, who faces a serious challenge from Carole L. Herrick (D); the transportation debate could be a factor in the fight for Puller's old seat between Scott T. Klein (R) and Kristen J. Amundson (D).

"If there's a perception he doesn't flat give a damn, it's going to hurt them," Saslaw said.

Gilmore has other risks on transportation.

Some in the governor's camp fear that if he does not lay the issue to rest in a WTOP Radio address tomorrow, the fallout could hurt Republicans such as Woods, Callahan and Del. James. H. Dillard II (R), Councill's counterpart on the education committee.

"I'm confident that in the next several days we can make substantial proposals that are going to be a big help and demonstrate that we're prepared to work towards the solution of these traffic problems," Gilmore said.

The governor wants to put as much as $2 billion into transportation, sending half of it to Northern Virginia, while reorganizing the state transportation department--whose veteran chief he just fired--and launching an array of "commuter-friendly" initiatives.

Gilmore summed up his own thinking this way in a statewide broadcast from Richmond last week: "The methods that VDOT uses for deciding roads and building roads is really kind of an old system," he said. "We ought to be examining a big, long-term plan and make sure that when we build a road, it actually is likely to reduce travel time and congestion and commuter time."

But, he added, "If you just keep papering over the administrative and policy questions by just simply raising taxes, there's no end to it."

Gilmore's visceral dislike of any new taxes has put him starkly at odds with countless business executives in Northern Virginia, a bloc rich in money and votes that he courted assiduously during his 1987 race for governor.

The newly formed group Region, a coalition of 15,000 area businesses, includes corporate leaders who are sympathetic to Gilmore but who are equally determined to get their employees to work on time.

Region spokesman Mike Carlin conceded last week that the group's activism for new revenue to fund transportation and schools, including a 1 percentage point sales tax increase, faces an uphill struggle against Gilmore, despite widespread support for a higher local levy on goods and services. A recent Region poll of 820 residents of Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties found that 56 percent favor the 1 percentage point tax increase, Carlin said.

"We want to work with him," Carlin said of Gilmore.

The governor may have none of it. Just as he dismisses Northern Virginia Democrats for "sloppy" thinking on taxes and new bonding authority, he is not listening to the likes of Region, which he criticized by name last week.

"Simply trying to raise taxes . . . is not wise long-term planning," Gilmore said. "It's not creative, either."

"Most of that is coming out of certain elements of the community in Northern Virginia," Gilmore said. "We don't think that the typical citizen in Northern Virginia wants their taxes raised. And I don't think they should have their taxes raised."

Gilmore may take solace in the fact that the transportation debate so far has raged in the dog-day doldrums of July and August.

"Neither side has gained the upper hand," said Scott Keeter, an expert on state politics at George Mason University. "Right now, the perception of the public may be that no adults are in charge."