At the southern tip of Virginia, a radio ad accuses a politician of raising taxes to help Northern Virginia. In Roanoke, the House Democratic leader declares on TV that "our schools and roads are just as important as Northern Virginia's." And a Norfolk candidate promises that if elected, she will work with neighboring politicians "like Northern Virginia Delegates do."

Once a weak player in Old Dominion politics, Northern Virginia is a force to be noticed. Its population is growing, its economy booming, and politicians stumping elsewhere in the state invoke the region, either as the place to emulate or the land of greedy opportunists.

This year, the region is pushing Richmond for more help in financing school construction and for money to solve the area's traffic troubles. And with redistricting looming after the 2000 Census, Northern Virginia looks to grow even more powerful.

It is becoming the part of Virginia that politicians elsewhere love to hate.

"We're the whipping boy," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "It's a harbinger of things to come, and it will get worse."

Republican Jonathan Large is one of the candidates with whip in hand. Large is taking on Del. Barnie K. Day (D-Patrick) in a district on the North Carolina border. In a radio ad launched last week, Large charges that Day wants to raise taxes for the sake of Northern Virginia's roads.

The tactic may be effective, Large explained. Downstate voters are miffed that they might not reap their share of the state's national tobacco settlement, a portion of which Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) wants to put into transportation projects.

"They want the tobacco money to come here, not to go to Northern Virginia to pay for roads," he said.

House Democratic Leader C. Richard Cranwell (Roanoke) taps into similar anxieties in a television ad.

The text reads, in part: "Dick Cranwell was told Northern Virginia deserved better schools and roads. So he passed the first law giving Southwest Virginia our fair share. . . . Our schools and roads are just as important as Northern Virginia's. To me, Southwest Virginia will always come first."

A Republican lawmaker, Sen. Warren E. Barry (Fairfax), said he thinks the message of the ad is loud and clear: "Northern Virginians are nothing but a bunch of pirates who come down and raid the state."

Not so, insisted Cranwell. He said that his message is not anti-Northern Virginia, but that he is looking out for his people. An important point, he said, considering the governor's recent proposal to give more to Northern Virginia in the state's division of transportation money.

"When your folks up there say that we ought to be looking at the highway distribution formula, that's an indication to me that they want to take it out of my hide," he said.

The major jurisdictions that made up Northern Virginia--Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William--hold a quarter of the state's senators and delegates. After the 2000 Census, redistricting will make that number even more potent, and downstate legislators know the clock is ticking.

"They've got to go pluck the chicken and do it in the next two years," Barry said. "Their message is, 'Send me up there, and I'll get ours quick.' "

Add to that some resentment at northerners' hitting the jackpot on transportation funding and getting bigger rebates from the car tax, and it's an easy campaign theme.

Thomas R. Morris, a political scientist and president of Emory and Henry College in Southwest Virginia, said downstate citizens are "somewhat in awe of Northern Virginia because of the clout it has. . . . Candidates are going to respond with issues that resonate with voters. They'd be foolish not to."

Robert D. Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, agreed.

"Northern Virginia's clearly becoming the 800-pound gorilla of Virginia politics," he said.

Republican Rowena J. Fullinwider, who is trying to unseat House Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D) in Norfolk, knows that well, and is promising voters that she would model herself not after Moss, but after the Northern Virginia delegation, which works across party lines for the region.

"Northern Virginia brings home the bacon," said Fullinwider campaign manager Carol Fentress. "I think we're all saying it."