The Republican leader in the House of Delegates and legislative colleagues have agreed to co-sign a loan to help Del. Roger J. McClure (R) of Fairfax County pay off an $80,000 federal tax debt, McClure said today.

McClure, 55, one of the few embattled incumbents in Virginia's pivotal Nov. 2 elections, said several friends had agreed to co-sign a loan to consolidate the balance of a debt he has owed the Internal Revenue Service since the recession of the early 1990s.

McClure said the transaction, which will include Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (Amherst), the Republican floor leader in the House, will be a straightforward one that shoulders him alone with the primary responsibility to ensure repayment of the loan. "They can always come after me if I don't repay them," said McClure, a lawyer and legislative committee chairman who is seeking a fourth two-year term from his Centreville district.

Wilkins, reached in Blacksburg, said, "I try to help any friend that needs help." He declined to comment further.

Several Republicans who want McClure to defeat his Democratic challenger, James E. Mitchell Jr., said Wilkins had been determined to erase the debt as a possible issue in the hotly contested Northern Virginia race. Mitchell criticized McClure for the debt two years ago when he challenged the incumbent.

"Various people were asked" to participate in the loan, said Scott Leake, the top staffer for Republican House members. "Vance's view was that if the money is there so that he doesn't have a problem, then it can be said he doesn't have a problem."

The McClure-Mitchell election is vital to Democrats and Republicans alike, because the 100-member House is essentially split evenly between the parties.

Losses or victories on either side could preserve a whisker-thin Democratic majority or give the GOP a triumph it has awaited since the Civil War era. A Republican majority could also be a boon for Wilkins, the acknowledged frontrunner in any internal GOP race for speaker of the House.

Democratic leaders said Mitchell had decided before this year's campaign not to mention McClure's tax problems, which stem from a dispute over unpaid employee withholding taxes. McClure said he has been steadily making monthly payments on the debt, but the repayment loan could become a volatile issue in the final days of the campaign.

"It doesn't pass the sniff test," Mitchell said of the help offered by Wilkins and others. "If Roger McClure is beholden to some unknown group of persons, has he compromised himself as a public official?

"It's an embarrassment for the people of his district," Mitchell said.

As with his other, unidentified colleagues and friends who are helping, McClure said he had a "personal relationship" with Wilkins.

McClure said that personal funds, rather than any political contributions, would be used to secure the loan. He said his friends numbered five or six, adding that he could not "really remember the sequence of events" that led to the financial agreement, which has not yet been finalized.

Under a power-sharing agreement hammered out in the House after impressive GOP gains, McClure is the co-chairman of the Militia and Police Committee, considered one of the least powerful in a legislature that works on the committee system.

Wilkins is a member of McClure's committee. Jay Katzen (R), a committee colleague who represents part of Fauquier County, said he had not been asked to help his chairman, but added: "I would have been pleased to participate."

McClure and Mitchell have been about even in their political money this year. In their most recent filings with the state, McClure reported contributions totaling $48,380 and a cash balance of $23,217; Mitchell had received $54,152 and had just under $15,000 in cash.

Both campaigns had also attracted the attention of Washington-based national party organizations.

In August, Democrats 2000 gave Mitchell $2,000 and the National Republican Congressional Committee gave McClure $5,000.

CAPTION: Del. Roger J. McClure says he alone will be responsible for making sure that the loan is repaid.