Meredith L. Gorfein's words are drowned out by a passing freezer truck just as a placard promoting her Democratic candidacy for the Virginia House of Delegates starts to fall over a second time. She props it back up again.

The crowd of 12 she is addressing includes four journalists, her husband and a member of her opponent's staff, and they are gathered in an Old Town Warrenton plaza. They shuffle for a moment as the rumble of the truck recedes, and Gorfein, the 55-year-old co-owner of Rush River Vineyard in Rappahannock County, continues to state what is made obvious by the sparse turnout.

"We all know that I'm an underdog, a long shot, that this is an uphill battle, all those wonderful metaphors," she says, with the crisp locution and poise of someone who spent years around the theater, both as a teacher and a stage manager. "But what does it mean? That when the odds are long you don't play? No. You just play harder, and you encourage others to play with you."

So far, not many people appear to be playing with Gorfein, the latest and least-known Democrat to tilt at the windmill of Republican incumbent Del. Jay Katzen, 63, who has easily won his last three races to represent the 31st District. The district includes all but two precincts of Fauquier County, parts of Warren County and all of Rappahannock County.

According to the most recent available campaign records, Katzen has raised more than $94,000 to defend his seat and is flush with more than $43,000 in cash on hand. Gorfein, on the other hand, reported contributions of $3,800, with $2,300 to spend.

Katzen enjoys the perquisites of incumbency, with a fund-raiser paid for by his campaign and office assistants in Warrenton and Richmond, while Gorfein works a 30-hour-a-week job at the counter of a Fauquier County winery, Linden Vineyards, so she and her husband, Henry, 60, can maintain health insurance coverage.

She writes her own speeches, her campaign headquarters is the cluttered corner of her living room and, thus far, she has received little financial help from the state party. The Democrats are using their sparse resources in the months leading up to the Nov. 2 election to defend incumbent Democrats, who now split control of the House of Delegates with Republicans.

On top of that, the 31st District is conservative, has never elected a liberal Democrat and has given Katzen, a retired foreign service officer with strong ties to Christian conservatives, large margins of victory. He trounced former Fauquier school board member Paul J. Asciolla in the 1997 election, with 63 percent of the vote.

"This is a tough district, a Republican district. I was very lucky to win when I did," said former delegate Jerry Wood, the last Democrat to hold the seat, beating Katzen in 1991 but losing a reelection bid in 1993. House of Delegate terms run for two years.

"There are a million reasons why I shouldn't run, I know," Gorfein said after her Warrenton speech, in an interview at her frame house overlooking her vineyard in Washington, Va. "But people out there have to have a choice."

The slight woman with the confident voice was a foot soldier in the losing congressional campaigns of Robert L. "Bob" Weinberg and Cornell Brooks, in 1996 and 1998, respectively, and worked for the campaigns of Asciolla and Sue Scheer, an environmentalist who lost big to Katzen in 1995.

Gorfein said she decided to run when she discovered that no one else would, after a spring meeting of the Rappahannock County Democratic Committee, on which she serves. "I couldn't believe it," she said.

And so, on a meager budget, she announced her candidacy in June and has been trying to attract local press attention ever since.

Gorfein said she believes that on key issues--gun control, education, campaign finance and residential development--she can put Katzen on the defensive for his voting record and, in the process, raise her profile.

For instance, she has tried to call attention to Katzen's opposition to weapons legislation passed last session (the legislation removed a measure allowing students with hunting permits to keep rifles locked in their trucks on school parking lots); said his longstanding support of tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools undermines public education; and argued that his inability to prevent the General Assembly from passing legislation aimed specifically at the way Fauquier County handles development shows how ineffective he is as an advocate for local interests.

Gorfein also said that Katzen's interest in higher elective office--he made a bid for lieutenant governor in 1997 and has said he is considering another run in 2001--has distracted him from local concerns.

Katzen has defended his gun vote by saying he is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, countered that his tax credit program for schools would end up giving more money to public education and said he did all he could to prevent passage of House Bill 2324, which took away a process Fauquier used to slow residential development.

But for the most part, Katzen has been ignoring an opponent who has to work weekends and lives 30 miles away from Fauquier, where most of the district's votes are concentrated.

"I don't really know that much about her positions," Katzen said in a recent interview, though he said he has been trying to learn a little bit. He sent the staff member who works in his district office to take notes at the Gorfein speech Sept. 3.

Gorfein admits that she has had a hard time getting her message out because, she said, "I am an abysmally shy person."

Over lunch at Ray's Deli in Sperryville, she is greeted warmly by the locals who have grown to know and like her since she moved from the District of Columbia with her then-boyfriend, now-husband in 1980. She speaks jovially with the people she knows, but avoids several opportunities to press the flesh with strangers in the more traditional type of politicking.

"I have to get better at that," Gorfein said later.

Gorfein, the oldest of five children, was born in Oregon and reared in Wayland, Mass., about 15 miles west of Boston, by her father, a mid-level manager at a manufacturing plant, and her stepmother. She worked her way through West Virginia Wesleyan College as a waitress and earned a degree in English, a subject she would later teach in Massachusetts public schools. After her first teaching stint and working odd jobs in New York City, she earned a master's degree in theater at Boston University.

After graduation, she taught drama and English at public schools in the District, before taking a job there with Arena Stage, where she eventually became stage manager. It is there that she met her husband-to-be, Henry "Hank" Gorfein, who at the time was technical director.

They moved out to "little" Washington in 1980 and were married in 1982. The affectionate couple, who have several cats, a dog and no children, also enjoy a close relationship politically--he serves as her campaign manager.

"He's everything," she said, describing his role.

During her time in Washington, Meredith Gorfein has worked as a waitress at the Inn at Little Washington and the Bleu Rock Inn, and, beginning in the late 1980s, began working on her vineyard, Rush River Vineyard--1,800 vines that yielded their first harvest in 1993. Rush River now boasts its own label at Linden Vineyards.

The couple has not grown wealthy from their vineyard, Henry Gorfein said. "All our money is tied up in the property," he said. The 32 acres and house were assessed in 1998 at $216,400

Some of the other candidates she has worked for applauded her decision to enter the race but emphasized the difficulties.

"It is probably more difficult now because Katzen is an incumbent, and the longer you have an incumbent, the more difficult it is to unseat him," Scheer said.

But Jim Law, owner of Linden Vineyards, said her candidacy made all the more sense because of Katzen's incumbency.

"I think what Meredith is doing is very brave," Law said. He said he lectured this summer in the former Soviet Union as part of an agricultural volunteer program and used Gorfein's candidacy as an example of how a political system should work.

"If there weren't people like her here, I don't think we'd have much democracy," he said. "If we continue to be totally complacent to big money and lobbyists, we're going to end up with the same system they have over there."

CAPTION: Meredith L. Gorfein is challenging Republican Del. Jay Katzen in the 31st District. " . . . People out there have to have a choice," she said.

CAPTION: Fauquier Democratic Party Chairman John Fry attends Gorfein's speech Sept. 3.

CAPTION: Candidate Meredith L. Gorfein and husband, Henry, also her campaign manager, own a Rappahannock County vineyard.