It has become a ritual of the election season: the finger-pointing and suspicious glances between rival camps when campaign signs disappear from roadsides and front yards.

But in a Loudoun County supervisor's race, the feuding has escalated to allegations of abduction, assault and car tampering.

Bruce E. Tulloch and Timothy F. Powers, vying (with Democrat Charles A. "Chuck" Harris) for the Board of Supervisors seat in Loudoun's Broad Run District, are each facing a misdemeanor assault and battery charge after a Saturday night encounter sparked by a trail of uprooted signs. Powers also is charged with tampering with Tulloch's car.

The candidates admit they've had a heated campaign. But they never imagined that the bickering would lead to their sitting in a magistrate's office filing criminal complaints against each other.

"It's surreal," Tulloch said.

"Ridiculous," Powers said.

The candidates say the dispute began on a stretch of Ashburn Road, but that's about all they agree on.

Powers, an independent, says that he spent the evening with two supporters planting red, white and blue signs and that they were returning home about 7:30 when they spotted a man on a grassy shoulder.

It was Tulloch. The Republican says he stopped to make sure his signs were still intact because a friend had called to say they might have been knocked down.

After Tulloch got in his station wagon, Powers noticed that some campaign signs he had put up only hours earlier were scattered in the weeds. Powers supporter Mark Smith figured that the station wagon driver might be the culprit, and Smith stopped his own car in front of the station wagon to get a tag number.

As Powers jotted down the tag, the candidates recognized each other and agreed to wait on the side of the road and let police settle the dispute. But before a deputy arrived, things heated up.

Powers said Tulloch backed into him with the station wagon, knocking him to the ground.

Tulloch denies that. And he claims that Powers hopped into the back seat of the station wagon and began rummaging through campaign materials in search of his missing signs.

Not so, said Powers. "The only time I had any contact with his car was when he backed over me," he said.

A Tulloch news release says he was abducted by his opponent, boxed in by Smith's car. Powers's response: "If an abduction took place that night, it was by a UFO."