The constant tension of politics -- principle versus pragmatism -- is manifest this year in Virginia's race for lieutenant governor. On June 14 voters in the Republican primary must choose between Sen. Bill Bolling (Hanover) and Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton.

Bolling is a conservative's conservative, consistently voting against tax increases and for "family values." Yet Connaughton, although generally considered the less conservative of the two, could be more of an asset to the GOP. His presence on the ticket could draw support where Republicans most need it -- in the Washington suburbs. If conservatives vote in support of their party's principles, they're likely to elect Bolling. If pragmatism dictates, Connaughton could get the nod.

Unfortunately, voters in the Democratic primary won't have the luxury of choosing among equally good candidates.

Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (Russell) is amiable but not known enough to be competitive.

Leslie L. Byrne is well known -- and that is her biggest problem. Fairly or unfairly, she is seen as the poor man's Hillary Rodham Clinton: far to the left and abrasive, a polarizing figure. Moreover, Byrne is known for her losing streak. After serving only one term in Congress, she wasn't reelected in 1994. She lost to Mark R. Warner in the 1996 Democratic caucus preceding the Senate race. As the manager of Howard Dean's Virginia campaign last year, Byrne also was unsuccessful in rallying support for her candidate.

So if she has so little political clout within the liberal enclaves of Northern Virginia, how can she appeal to more conservative voters in the rest of the state? Nominating Byrne would be the best gift Democrats could give to Republicans -- and Democrats undoubtedly know that, which is why many will be pragmatic and vote for Del. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (Fairfax).

Petersen is not as far left as Byrne, but is he as moderate as he claims, or is he following the tell-'em-what-they-want-to-hear lead of Warner and Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine? Consider that, like Kaine, Petersen supported last year's record tax increase yet now says he supports tax relief for Virginians. Petersen also has offered the looniest proposal of all the candidates: a plan to open six regional bureaus of the lieutenant governor's office [Metro, June 1].

Keep in mind that the lieutenant governor's only duty is to preside over the state Senate. Why would that require office space anywhere outside of Richmond? And imagine what a waste of money that would be. Even if the space were donated, each office would have to be staffed and furnished and have phone lines, computers, utilities, etc. If operating a half-dozen offices around the state for the convenience of a lieutenant governor who might pop in a few times a year is Petersen's idea of fiscal prudence, how does he define extravagance?

By far the best candidate in the Democratic field is Del. Viola O. Baskerville of Richmond. She is a principled liberal who does not try to cloak her views, and she is an independent thinker. Baskerville has disagreed publicly with Kaine's proposal for a 20 percent exemption on real estate taxes. But unlike many of her fellow Democrats, she supports expanding the exemptions for estate taxes.

Baskerville does not view government as citizens' principal provider; she is a champion of small business. In the House of Delegates, she has introduced inventive legislation, such as a bill addressing Internet privacy.

And, for a job that is largely ceremonial, Baskerville is the most temperamentally fit. While serving on Richmond's often rancorous city council and in the General Assembly, she has maintained her dignity. Nor does she treat adversaries as enemies -- a big asset for a Senate president. When representing Virginia in official capacities, a Lt. Gov. Baskerville would bring honor to us all. But will Democrats adhere to their party's principles and nominate the liberal Baskerville, or will they consider it pragmatic to nominate Petersen, who casts himself as more of a centrist?

In the race for lieutenant governor, the outcome may depend on whether votes are cast according to conscience -- or calculation.