Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) is getting serious about laying groundwork for passage of regional proposals to raise sales taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, generating billions of transportation dollars for the state's most seriously congested centers of commerce.

On the stump and behind the scenes, Warner is behaving as though the Nov. 5 referendum is a make-or-break moment in his governorship, a turning point by which his four years in office will be judged.

Although it reflects his characteristic intensity, Warner's focused commitment to a fall victory is new for an executive who just a few months ago was saying as a candidate that he supported the sales tax proposals in concept only, not necessarily in the particulars.

Speaking recently to a local leadership group in Richmond, Warner was downright passionate about the need for the infusion of transportation funds, according to several audience members neutral on the sales tax issue. Warner went so far as to link the mass transit component of the Hampton Roads referendum to the public safety requirements of moving large numbers of people around the sprawling port region in the event of a catastrophe.

Meanwhile, Warner has installed a trusted and seasoned political operative at the helm of the Washington area advocacy campaign, approving selection of Democrat Mary A. "Mame" Reiley as campaign director. Republican William D. Lecos, a longtime business community advocate, will be finance director in charge of raising at least $2 million, and probably $3 million, for the effort.

"The combination of the two of us is a good one," said Reiley, who was vetted for the campaign post by Warner confidant Nicholas D. Perrins and John G. Milliken, the former state transportation secretary who ran the governor's transition team last winter. Reiley handled the complex preparations for Warner's inauguration in January.

Although quite different politically, Reiley and Lecos are two peas in a pod in understanding Northern Virginia's tricky political terrain.

Both are tough and smart; neither suffers fools gladly. They are the best in the business for what Warner has in mind, for although he personally has a lot riding on the outcome, Lecos and Reiley are also preparing for the candidate-less campaign as if the future of the Washington suburbs hangs in the balance, they said.

"It's so critical to the region as a whole -- it's got to happen," said Reiley, who is leaving the Washington production and conference management company where she has worked for six years and starts her new job in early June. "We have got to get voters to agree that for the quality of their lives, they have to take it on the chin and step up to the plate. Northern Virginia is ready for a challenge like that; they're activists, they're informed."

Lecos said, "We win if we run on the facts, saying to voters that if you live in Fairfax City or along the Route 1 corridor or in south Arlington, you can look at the list of projects that will be funded and see how much money is going to go here.

"This is real money. Richmond isn't going to solve our problems. There is a sense that folks are fed up, and we want to take it into our own hands, because it ain't getting any better."

The diverse but motivated opponents of the sales tax increase are not as organized as the advocates and may never be, given the inherent difficulties in uniting generally left-leaning environmentalists who fear increased sprawl and ardent anti-taxers who tend to be conservative Republicans.

Yet the opponents may not have to work as hard as Reiley and Lecos. Last week, there was a small upheaval in several local governments as slower-growth advocates defeated incumbents in Leesburg, Fairfax City and other municipalities.

Although it was more of a political hiccup than a cataclysmic sea change, revolving around intensely local issues such as the firing of a local police chief (in Leesburg's case), Reiley said the results still gave her pause.

"It reconfirms the fact that we have to roll up our sleeves and that we have an uphill battle," she said. "It's an incredible challenge."

Robert F. Lederer, incoming mayor of Fairfax, said he was undecided about the sales tax increase plan, an issue that never affected his election. To that extent, he may be like many others in the city of 13,000 voters -- leaning toward voting yes but with a couple of important caveats.

"In our polling, the number one issue was traffic and congestion, but managing that is an even bigger issue," Lederer said. "I'm keeping an open mind. Northern Virginia needs help and needs help quickly, and the state is not in a position to help.

"So I understand the merits. The issue is whether there's enough money to solve the problem in a meaningful way and having a confidence level that the state does not then walk away from its obligation to Northern Virginia, that it's not a cop-out for the state."