Ever hear of John Shipper?

Apart from the political junkies who know that Shipper was a fund-raiser for Lt. Gov. John H. Hager (R) and a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, he is betting that the answer is no, even as he considers a bid for the District 31 seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.

That seat will be available now that Del. Jay Katzen (R-Fauquier) has decided he will run--again--for lieutenant governor in 2001 and won't seek reelection to the House when his current term expires at the end of that year.

Since Katzen's announcement earlier this month, several aspirants to the safely Republican seat have been contacting the political players in Fauquier County, seeking their support and money and jousting for position in what could be a fairly crowded Republican primary field.

Some candidates, such as Walter Longyear, chairman of the Rappahannock County Republican Party, advocate an early start as a necessary way to raise money for a race that could cost close to $200,000. "It's very important to get in there early," Longyear said.

Others, such as party activist and potential candidate Douglas Combs, say it's too early--and maybe even a bit unseemly--to be worried about the nomination now. "The bottom line is that you get out there and support our presidential candidate," Combs said. "That other race is almost two years off."

Early or late, "it's going to be quite a contest," said Paul Lawrence, chairman of the Fauquier County Republican Party and chairman of the party's committee for District 31, which comprises all but two precincts in Fauquier, all of Rappahannock and parts of Warren County.

"It's an open seat, and there's not a lot of competition from the other side," Lawrence said, referring to a local Democratic party apparatus that finds itself without a lot of money or votes, at least in the last four elections when Katzen won by large margins.

Already declaring themselves candidates are Wendell "Dell" Ennis, a home builder from Midland, and Longyear, who is also the owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Washington, Va., and a political direct mail marketing consultant.

In the coy "seriously considering it" category are Fauquier Supervisor Joe Winkelmann (R-Center), a lobbyist with close ties to Republicans in Richmond and Washington, and Combs, an ex-Marine who made his fortune in commodities trading and has become a favorite of such politicians as Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) because of his fund-raising abilities.

Fauquier Supervisor James R. Green Jr. (I-Marshall), who is stepping down after 20 years on the county board, also said he is considering a bid for delegate. "I wouldn't be afraid to run as an independent," he said.

Board Chairman Larry L. Weeks (R-Scott) keeps being mentioned despite his insistence that the House seat "is a job that I don't want, period. Besides, I don't like the commute to Richmond."

Which brings us to Shipper. The former Tobacco Institute lobbyist who moved just outside Warrenton four years ago is officially on the sidelines. But he said a prominent local Republican asked him whether he would run, and he added that he thinks he could win the seat if he tries, since it's still so early in the process. "There could be 10, 15 people in this thing before it's through," he said. "The apples will fall off the tree as the race ripens a little bit."

A crowded field will be sure to expose some of the ideological fault lines in the party that dominates local politics in District 31. Katzen and Longyear both were active in the gun-rights and home-schooling movements and are popular among Christian conservatives. Winkelmann and Weeks have made their local legislative careers by promoting restrictions on residential growth.

Combs, who has a home in Warrenton and a farm in Rappahannock, has powerful political friends and a big bankbook himself. Also, he was a liaison this year in the unsuccessful bid to persuade Gilmore to veto legislation aimed specifically at stripping Fauquier and Rappahannock counties of their ability to place restrictions on certain types of residential developments.

And Ennis, who jumped over from the Democratic Party four years ago, has been courting local Republicans and has been a constant presence at political functions in the county. "The reception's been great," said Ennis, who said he will wait until next year to announce his candidacy formally.

Longyear, who also said he would wait until the new year to begin running officially, claims he has the endorsement of Katzen, who did not return phone calls seeking comment. Several of the other potential candidates said Katzen's endorsement would not be that big a deal, but Longyear begged to differ.

"Sure it is. Jay Katzen is popular with all the people in the district, especially with Republicans," Longyear said.

Winkelmann, who won a special election last year to serve out a partial term on the Board of Supervisors and another election for a full term on the board this year, said he will wait until spring to decide. If he does decide to run, he said, reflecting the confidence that has won him both praise and darts on the board, "I will win."