The contest for a newly drawn state Senate district in Northern Virginia is tapping into frustration felt by many voters in Fairfax and Prince William counties: Can they count on Richmond to help relieve traffic gridlock and build more classrooms for their children?

Democrat Rosemary Lynch, 55, a school activist from Franconia, and Republican James K. "Jay" O'Brien, 50, a six-term state delegate from Clifton, are pledging to ask state government to do more as they crisscross the 39th District.

The 39th District was created last year as part of the General Assembly's efforts to redraw districts to reflect the 2000 Census. The district of 100,000 people stretches from Fairfax County's Franconia west to Clifton, and runs south into Prince William, including Lake Ridge and the Occoquan watershed.

O'Brien and Lynch announced in August that they would run, after the unexpected retirement of a Roanoke senator whose district was moved north to accommodate population growth in Northern Virginia. The contest is the only General Assembly race in Northern Virginia on the Nov. 5 ballot.

On the campaign trail, the candidates are meeting voters who are distracted by the recent sniper shootings and are more focused on the sales tax referendum than the state Senate race. The candidates are trying to harness the interest in the referendum to stir support for their campaigns.

"How do you feel about the sales tax issue?" O'Brien, who opposes the tax, asked Doug and Mary Alice Moran as they met him at their doorstep in the Saratoga neighborhood on Friday.

"I think it's a question of, Northern Virginia contributes so much to other parts of the state, we deserve to have the state pay for our transportation needs rather than see higher taxes," O'Brien said, as the retired couple, both Republicans, nodded in agreement.

Lynch, who is making her first run for political office, supports the half-cent-per-dollar sales tax increase as the only way to relieve congestion. She made sure to share her view with Rafael Fortiz, a Fairfax police officer whose hand she shook Friday at a Mobil station in Springfield.

"I'm trying to keep the transportation dollars up here," the candidate said, though Fortiz said his main concern was money for law enforcement.

In addition to highlighting their differences on the referendum measure, the candidates spend time talking about their experience and about their divergent stands on education and other issues.

Lynch, a former chairman of the Fairfax Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, said her biggest priority is to fight for more state support for public education. She cites her 30 years as a school activist as her best credential for getting that money. Her background resonated with Connie Mehio-Stenerson, a teacher of English for immigrant children, who shook Lynch's hand at a Giant supermarket and told her that her classes have as many as 28 children -- too many. Lynch nodded her head in empathy.

Lynch, who is counting on support from school advocates on Election Day, said her opponent "just hasn't been there" for parents whose children are shoehorned into trailers in many crowded schools in the district's older neighborhoods.

O'Brien moved with fellow Republicans to adjourn the legislative session last winter without voting on a referendum bill for school construction money, she said. "He wouldn't even talk about it." And Lynch cites O'Brien's support for school vouchers as a sign that he does not support public education.

O'Brien chafed at the suggestion that he does not support spending for public schools. He said he voted to adjourn the session last March, not against a referendum bill. But he did not support the bill on the table, he said, because a large chunk of any sales tax money raised for schools would have been sent outside Northern Virginia.

"Let's not say that because I voted to adjourn, I'm against public education," he said.

O'Brien is highlighting a legislative record that includes efforts to improve driver safety -- he co-sponsored laws restricting teenage drivers and toughening penalties for aggressive driving -- and to raise standards for substitute teachers. He also sponsored a law allowing organ donors to indicate their preference on their driver's licenses.

The 39th District has a slight Republican majority, but the candidates consider it a swing district. While O'Brien contends that he has the edge over Lynch in name recognition, both candidates are in a sense newcomers to a district whose voters may not even be aware that they live in it.

O'Brien does have the lead in fundraising. Since he announced his Senate bid, O'Brien has raised $62,000 on top of $42,000 he had in the bank from previous election cycles. He heads into the race's final weeks with $78,000. Lynch has raised $37,000 and has $15,000 on hand.