The following events actually happened in the alternative universe that is the 2003 Virginia General Assembly:

* "Pro-family" Republicans pass legislation that supporters say will force parents and their children to communicate better about family issues such as suicide and unplanned pregnancies.

The same Republicans also defeat bills, including a mandatory seat-belt statute and a proposal to catch stop-sign scofflaws, that experts say are well-documented protectors of those same parents and children.

* Gov. Mark R. Warner's proposal for mandatory seat belts is defeated, 10-10, in committee, but a companion bill remains alive in the state Senate -- leaving the governor another legislative vehicle and plenty of time to twist some arms for passage in the House committee.

But Warner appears on statewide radio and declares the seat-belt bill is dead, demoralizing his few remaining troops in both houses.

* The legislature's two leading budget experts decry the sorry state of the Virginia economy and project a $1 billion budget deficit for 2004-06.

Two days later, both budget leaders oversee the drafting of interim spending plans that fund state worker pay raises on the wobbly promise of steady economic growth.

Events such as these happen all the time in a state legislature, where contradictions abound and the only logic of the place is its irresistible illogic.

But, when lumped together, the antics of Virginia's majority Republicans, the governor's clumsy handling of his own agenda and the collective negligence in sweeping the budget problems under the carpet help explain this session's weird, unsettled mood.

There are plenty of superficial reasons for the bad vibe hanging over Richmond.

The fact that there's no new money has the entire state Capitol community -- pols, staff members, lobbyists and activists -- on edge. This year's Nov. 4 elections make everyone a little bit crazy, too.

The October sniper shootings left folks rattled, and so did the November sales tax votes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, reminding elected officials everywhere just how righteously indignant taxpayers can be at the polls.

Two ugly confirmation fights at the outset of the legislative session didn't help matters, and neither have war worries and the anemic state and national economies.

All in all, it's a pretty grim mix to start the new year.

But there's something else: a low-level but persistent sense of dread in Virginia's political establishment that this is as good as it gets for a long time. Leaders are throwing up their hands and saying that taxpayers had better get used to diminished expectations, not just on arts and culture but on indigent care and basic education in poor school districts.

"The fact is, we're just getting by," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford). "We're doing what absolutely must be done, but we're essentially standing still in our other areas of responsibility.

"If you're standing still in your services to the people of Virginia," Chichester added, "in reality you are retreating."

Malaise like this is disorienting for a state that prides itself on having the best of everything: America's richest history, world-class public universities, a thriving and diverse business base and, in Richmond, a civil discourse about where the Old Dominion is headed.

Suddenly there's a widespread feeling that the state is at an unpleasant tipping point, where a proud future lies on one side and mediocrity on the other.

The nervousness breeds dreadful politics, in which symbolism supersedes substance and parties veer off on the oddest tangents.

When the Republican Party that compiled a courageous history of loyal opposition in this state suddenly sneers at a statue of President Abraham Lincoln, people scratch their heads and wonder, "What happened?"

When lawmakers of both parties rush to eliminate the estate tax to satisfy not a broad constituency but their own election-year willies, people wonder, "What about the cuts on the other side of the equation?"

When the political discourse becomes Democrats slashing at each other in a judgeship fight and Republicans jostling over who's more patriotic or closer to God, people wonder about the whole legislature's priorities.

Several leaders say they are worried about their aimless, floundering government, but nobody does anything about it.

Chichester, alluding to the raft of problems crying out for attention, said: "We hear many of these same bills year after year. But this year, I detected a change in the tone of the discussion. I observed more agreement among the members . . . and I sensed greater frustration.

"But once again, we took no bold steps to address these issues," said Chichester, who after 24 years is the Senate's senior Republican. "So we'll bide our time one more year."

Richmond has no political risk-takers; the stifling political culture doesn't reward freewheeling leadership. But what if it did? Virginia's elected leaders wouldn't spend their time merely marking time.