If you listen to him, she's the longtime ineffectual legislator bereft of novel ideas and sadly out of touch with mainstream voters' values. Ask her, and she paints the portrait of a charlatan attempting to pass off trite positions as 21st century panaceas, distorting her record in the process.

The race in Fairfax County for Virginia's 36th District Senate seat pits Republican Daniel F. Rinzel, a former Justice Department official turned local lawyer, against Linda T. "Toddy" Puller, a four-term House of Delegates member now vying to succeed fellow Democrat Joseph V. Gartlan Jr., who is retiring from the Senate after 28 years.

Rinzel, whose informal campaign slogan is "New ideas, new energy," contends that Puller's prescriptions for curing Northern Virginia's ills, particularly its traffic congestion and crowded schools, amount to nothing more than "failed, unimaginative approaches" predicated on "just spending more money."

Puller, 54, currently the 42nd District's delegate, counters that Rinzel ignores the resources she has brought to local schools and roads. "What he's doing is meant to distract attention from the fact that I have a record to run on and he has no record," she says.

Puller, a member of the State House Transportation Committee since 1994, touts her role in successfully sponsoring a bond bill bringing $104.3 million in transportation funds to Northern Virginia.

The additional funding, she argues, will help alleviate problems presented by the massive overhaul of the "Mixing Bowl" interchange in Springfield, as well as help pay for the replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and improvements to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 66.

A member of the House Education Committee, she also trumpets her support of legislation to set aside lottery proceeds for education, arguing that Fairfax County's share of the money should go toward school construction to reduce crowding.

"The most striking difference between my abilities and Dan Rinzel's is my knowing how to get things done," Puller says.

"Whatever she's done hasn't stopped us from seeing more traffic jams and more trailers at our schools," Rinzel says.

Rinzel, 56, a former federal prosecutor in the Civil Rights Division who became a deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration, left the Justice Department in 1984 to become chief counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He departed that post in 1995, losing a GOP primary for the 36th District Senate seat the same year.

Now he believes he can win, asserting that, in Puller, he is matched against an archetypal politician accustomed to viewing government dollars as the answer to problems. "Simply building additional roads or widening them a little won't solve our problems," he says. "New roads will just attract new cars."

His solution includes tax incentives for businesses that permit employees to work from home, in theory keeping their cars off the roads.

"Given that so many people have computers and modems in their homes, the time for telecommuting has arrived," he says. "Sure, money helps, but things like sensors in roads that would adjust traffic light timing are needed. Innovation."

Like Puller, Rinzel favors using lottery money for school construction, though he opposes mandating that the funds be earmarked for that purpose. "What's needed for Fairfax County might not be what's needed elsewhere," he says.

As of mid-October, Rinzel had raised about $100,000, less than half of Puller's war chest. That disparity, coupled with the fact that Puller's current House district makes up more than one-third of the precincts in the 36th Senate District, explains why observers in both parties privately say she's a heavy favorite.

The 36th District includes precincts throughout the communities of Mount Vernon--where both candidates live--as well as Lee, Franconia, Lorton and Springfield, including both sides of the Route 1 corridor.

Each candidate insists that the other is out of tune with the district on key health and social issues. Puller supports empowering consumers to sue HMOs, while Rinzel prefers mediation.

Rinzel opposes abortion and supports the parental notification law for minors seeking abortions. Puller, who supports most abortion rights, voted for a ban on "partial-birth" abortions. She voted against the stricter parental notification measure adopted by the legislature.

"She takes extreme points of views on social issues," Rinzel says, "and just hasn't done enough on the other things that matter most to our district."

"It feels like I'm running as the attacked incumbent," Puller says. "But that's okay, because I'm the only one who's done something."

DISTRICT 36: State Senate

Linda T. 'Toddy' Puller (D)

Age: 54.

Residence: Alexandria.

Education: BA, Mary Washington College.

Elected offices/civic activities: Virginia House of Delegates (since 1992); member, state Board for Veterans' Affairs; member, Northern Virginia Community College Educational Foundation; executive board, Virginia High School League; member, Board of Trustees, Route One Corridor Housing.

Family: Widowed; two children.

Why should the voters elect you?

"For eight years, it has been my privilege to represent the people of my district in the General Assembly. I've worked hard to solve the problems facing my constituents and the Commonwealth. The job is challenging, sometimes frustrating, but also extremely rewarding. I'm proud of what I have accomplished, especially in education and transportation funding, but there is more to be done. My knowledge and experience will permit me to hit the ground running in the state Senate. I'm committed to advocate for our region and will work to ensure our state remains a great place to work and live."

What would you like voters to know about you?

"I love my work. I'm involved daily in helping solve problems and improving the quality of people's lives. That gives me satisfaction money can't buy."

Web site: www.toddy.org

E-mail address: tpuller@aol.com

Daniel F. Rinzel (R)

Age: 56.

Residence: Alexandria.

Education: BA, Marquette University; JD, University of Wisconsin School of Law.

Occupation: Attorney, Rinzel Law Offices.

Elected offices/civic activities: Award-winning federal prosecutor, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division; chief counsel, U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; member, Local Government Advisory Committee to the Chesapeake Executive Council; member, Attorney General's Task Force on Gangs and Youth Violence; legal counsel and board member, Mount Vernon/Lee Chamber of Commerce.

Family: Married; four children.

Why should the voters elect you?

"I will bring new energy and new ideas to representation of southeastern Fairfax County, an area which too often has been a neglected stepchild in schools, transportation and development. I will fight for full funding so our schools can meet the Standards of Quality and moderate return of lottery dollars to education to alleviate classroom shortages. I will support cross-county mass rail transit, including light rail, and encourage telecommuting to reduce traffic congestion. Continued phaseout of the car tax is a promise that must be kept."

What would you like voters to know about you?

"Beyond my professional experience and community activities, my role as a husband, father and teacher keep me aware of the real needs of our district."

Web site: www.rinzel.com

E-mail address: dfrinzel@aol.com