Virginia Lt. Gov. John H. Hager and Attorney General Mark L. Earley claimed the conservative Republican mantles of the Gilmore and Allen administrations yesterday as the two pledged to wage a polite campaign for the GOP's gubernatorial nomination in 2001.

Appearing in Fairfax County before Republican activists savoring the party's takeover of the General Assembly last month, Earley and Hager said they would continue the low-tax, tough-on-crime agendas of Gov. James S. Gilmore III and his predecessor, George Allen, who is challenging two-term incumbent Charles S. Robb (D) in next year's U.S. Senate race.

"It's been a balanced approach with Governor Allen and Governor Gilmore," Earley said at the state GOP's annual retreat, which has sometimes been a rite of commiseration about election returns during the past 16 years, but in this case was an upbeat celebration of Republican supremacy in Virginia politics.

Hager said Gilmore had joined Virginia's historic ranks--alongside Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, the father of the Constitution--with his "simple and majestic" repeal of the state car tax, a move that helped install the GOP ticket in the three statewide offices in 1997.

Although Gilmore has not reached the midpoint of his four-year term, Hager, 63, a retired tobacco executive, and Earley, 45, a lawyer and former legislator, are off and running to succeed him, a fight that promises to be the most hotly contested in a decade.

State Sen. J. Randy Forbes (Chesapeake), who moderated yesterday's Earley-Hager appearance, put his finger on the rank-and-file nerves already sensitive to the intense jockeying between the two camps when he confronted them about how to ensure that "our family, at the end of it, loves and respects each other."

Earley said he was committed to a "gracious and winsome" campaign. "Any kind of pettiness is going to hurt us," he said.

Hager concurred, saying: "We must police our actions. . . . United we stand, divided we fall."

Despite such diplomatic words, the two are circling one another like fighters in the ring, jabbing here and there for even tiny advantages in the struggle to be frontrunner.

On Monday, Earley hosted a Richmond reception for new Republican legislators, hoping to upstage an event Wednesday that Hager had long planned, ostensibly for incoming lawmakers, but really to raise $450,000 for his campaign.

The day after Hager's bash, Earley announced the formation of a 21-member steering committee for 2001, chaired by the Richmond lawyer who preceded him as attorney general, and including several lawyers and corporate leaders with a range of regulatory matters before Earley's office. The committee has a strong Gilmore cast to it: The chairman, Richard Cullen, appeared in a fund-raising video with the governor this summer; two of Cullen's law partners, also on the committee, are confidants of Gilmore; and another member was Gilmore's choice to run in a GOP House primary this year.

Hager is pursuing his own energetic course, building a base in the state's corporate elite, but also in a far-flung network of GOP activists he's cultivated while Earley has been largely tied to his office in Richmond.

Stricken by polio in 1973, Hager uses a wheelchair and now talks openly about his disability. He spoke movingly to 900 people at his gala last week and reprised that yesterday, saying, "The very worst thing that ever happened to me was the very best thing to ever happen to me."

Bill Kling, who toiled for years to change the political leadership of Prince William County from Democratic to Republican, said the Earley-Hager dynamic is fluid at this stage. "Earley has quite a following among the Christian conservatives in the county; Hager has a following among everybody else," Kling said.

"In terms of the number of [visits to] the county and making a good impression, Hager's ahead," said Kling, who is not committed to either side. "Earley needs to be there more often."

CAPTION: Bumper stickers, pins, T-shirts and other party paraphernalia are on display in the lobby of the Westfields Marriott in Chantilly during this year's upbeat Virginia Republican leadership retreat.