More than six weeks before their legislative elections, Republicans and Democrats are wearing out the sturdy marble-and-limestone halls of the state Capitol with dueling news conferences on the hot issues of the moment: one day guns in schools (Democrats oppose that), the next elderly care (Republicans want to help senior citizens).

Are Virginia voters digesting this governmental goulash?

Party leaders answered with an emphatic yes, even as constituents back home emptied Labor Day weekend sand out of their bathing suits and dealt with Hurricane Floyd.

Northern Virginia Democrats said last week that they may knock off a couple of GOP incumbents by advocating strict limits on guns on school property. Republicans, in turn, rolled out their four-point "bill of rights" for seniors.

Virginia GOP Chairman J. Randy Forbes, a state senator from Chesapeake, acknowledged the political timing of his elder-care plan. "It's true we're rolling it out now," in the election season, Forbes told reporters Tuesday.

But, he said, Republicans are far more judicious in selecting issues for public consumption. "One press conference, one package, one proposal" is the Republican way, he said.

There indeed seemed to be some meat to Forbes's plan to help many of the more than 1 million Virginians who will be 60 and older next year. And, as several Democrats kindly pointed out, his proposal bore a striking resemblance to senior citizen initiatives that Donald S. Beyer Jr. was pushing in September 1997, during his Democratic run for governor.

"There's nothing new in here," sniffed Craig K. Bieber, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "It's a good thing somebody held on to a copy of Don's 1997 policy book!"

Forbes outlined a two-year, $25 million plan to safeguard Social Security benefits, protect older Virginians from criminal violence and telephone scams, promote independent living and safeguard against abuse in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

Sandra Levin, president of the Richmond-based Virginia Association of Non-Profit Homes for the Aging, said she generally welcomed programs to assist seniors, given the state's dismal performance in the past.

"They do very little about helping seniors and understand them even less," said Levin, whose group includes representatives of facilities assisting 18,000 senior citizens. Levin said the state needs to explore all care options, though, rather than simply pouring money into conventional forms of care.

Circling for Dollars

Governors always keep a sharp eye on the comings and goings of their immediate predecessors, and that holds true for Gov. James S. Gilmore III and his camp when it comes to George Allen, their fellow Republican who hopes to parlay his four years at the Executive Mansion into a U.S. Senate seat.

Like friendly but wary boxers, Allen and Gilmore occasionally circle each other throughout Virginia, both raising tens of thousands of dollars to sprinkle on GOP candidates running for the General Assembly in November.

Neither side is keeping an exact score, but both men are hustling to raise money for their own political action committees and the state Republican Party, which could help Gilmore capture control of the legislature this fall and boost Allen next year when he runs against two-term Sen. Charles S. Robb (D).

Take the events of Sept. 9. That morning in Fredericksburg, Gilmore went to a small breakfast gathering at the Central Park Cafe, where he raised a cool $105,000 from a dozen or so business people. That evening, Allen was the star attraction at the home of William J. Vakos, a Spotsylvania County real estate developer, who raised $20,000 for state Senate hopeful Andrew M. "Mel" Sheridan Jr. (R).

Chris LaCivita, a senior strategist for Allen's 2000 race, said the former governor has a dozen more events to help legislative candidates between now and Nov. 2.

"This election is not about George Allen," LaCivita said, "but the governor's numbers are still incredibly high." GOP candidates are learning "that one of the most popular politicians in their district is George Allen," LaCivita said.

A Portrait, With Blemishes

The smartest $25 any devotee of Virginia politics can spend is probably on "Virginia Votes, 1995-1998," the newly published analysis by Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia pundit known for crunching the numbers that often reveal the inside scoop on electoral politics.

Sabato has been at it since the early 1970s, studying voter turnout, demographics, campaign finance and polling.

Among his more pessimistic findings: The state's 48 percent turnout of the voting-age population in the 1996 presidential election was below the nation's 49 percent and marked the first time in Virginia's modern era that fewer voters went to the polls than in the previous presidential election.

In the congressional elections last year, there was no two-party competition in seven of Virginia's 11 districts, which Sabato said was the worst record by the major parties in modern times.

Sabato's booklet can be had by calling the university's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at 804-982-5704.