A crowd of Ruritans dined on chicken and cornbread at a fire hall last week while Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. spelled out his priorities for the year--cutting estate taxes, blocking runaway patient suits against HMOs and holding the line on new Medicare drug benefits.

Digesting the Republican-sounding list, a voice at the front finally asked the wayward 53-year-old Democrat a question that's been on many people's minds here: "Put us on the map tonight, Virgil! Are you going to switch political horses?"

Goode grinned and ducked the query. Why give away the ending to a good mystery?

For more than a year, the second-term congressman from Southside Virginia has been locked firmly on Capitol Hill's radar screen because of his flirtation with the Republican Party. His defection would deal a serious setback to Democratic hopes of taking control of the House of Representatives, where the GOP is clinging to a five-seat advantage.

Goode's aides have signaled that a decision could come as soon as Congress returns today.

The pressure on him to switch parties--both inside his district and out--has been building since he voted with four other House Democrats to impeach President Clinton in December 1998.

But Goode--a Rocky Mount lawyer with a schoolboy's unruly hair and a thick Blue Ridge accent--has been in no hurry to make up his mind. He has relished the attention, fraternizing with Republicans and musing of becoming a GOP-voting independent.

Far from Washington one day last week, he canvassed with constituents across his 17-county district of tobacco farms and textile mills, passing up every chance to talk up the prospects for a Democrat-led House.

"Tell you what, I'm not going to make any comments on that right now," Goode said. But he went out of his way to praise Republicans and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.): "I think Hastert has done a good job. That's all I'm going to say."

When his attendance at a recent fund-raiser for Republican Senate candidate George Allen came up, Goode declined to say whether he would endorse incumbent Charles S. Robb, against whom Goode lost a primary contest in 1994.

"I'll make a statement on that--but not today," Goode said coyly.

To the Ruritans, Goode pledged to fight for a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, a ban on "partial birth" abortion and an amendment requiring a balanced budget apart from Social Security trust funds.

He didn't mention that Robb opposes the first two measures but noted that both fell "by a vote or two" in the Senate.

Goode has passed up chances to jump many times, most recently when a GOP seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee opened up with the defection of Rep. Michael P. Forbes (N.Y.) to the Democrats.

This time, more strategic concerns may be coming into play. Republicans have reportedly threatened to redraw Goode into the district of neighboring Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) after the 2000 Census if he fails to switch parties.

But the fact that Democrats are close to taking back the House may be what finally drives him away. A vocal defender of the tobacco farmers in his district, which is home to the nation's second-largest leaf auction house, Goode dreads handing over federal regulatory oversight to Democratic chairmen. He also has strongly opposed Democratic budgets.

"Those are the kinds of issues that are important to me," Goode said. "You have to determine whether it's the best for the Fifth District and the best for what you think is your philosophy of government."

In fact, Democratic leaders have granted Goode wide leeway to court his conservative rural constituents so long as he voted for the caucus.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who spoke with Goode last week, made it clear in an interview that he was eager to keep the Blue Dog Democrat in the party as a potential vote for a Democratic House speaker next year.

"I hope he remains a Democrat. I will do anything I can to campaign for his reelection," Gephardt said.

But patience with Goode's seditious streak has worn thin elsewhere. In the Virginia Senate, where he served for 23 years until 1996, scars remain from his final session, when he threw his support to Republicans and broke a 20 to 20 partisan deadlock to force committee power-sharing.

"I've always liked Virgil," said state Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), "but it would appear, based on his voting record, that he does not believe in one single thing."

On most issues, Goode already is one of the Republican leadership's most reliable votes. He voted against Clinton 84 percent of the time in 1999, according to a Congressional Quarterly survey, an increase from 74 percent two years ago and 71 percent in 1997, his first year in Congress.

Goode was one of a handful of Democrats who broke party ranks to vote in favor of Republican budgets and tax cuts in 1998 and 1999; to limit class-action lawsuits against tobacco companies, gunmakers and other industries; to oppose the use of force in Kosovo; and to deny foreign aid in 1997, including money for family planning.

Democrats in Goode's conservative district concede that his maverick style has endeared him to voters of all stripes.

"The plain truth is, Virgil could get elected running as a Rastafarian here," said Del. Barney K. Day (D-Patrick). "He polls the moon."

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (Va.).