The key break in Paul Trible's political career came at a family gathering at his parent's retirement home in Kilmarnock, a town at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay in the Northern Neck of Virginia. Trible's uncle offhandedly mentioned that the commonwealth's attorney in nearby Essex County was quitting in mid- term. The established lawyers in Tappahannock, the county seat, didn't want the job: it paid only $7,500 a year and, though it was part- time, could cut into a lawyer's practice. But Paul Trible, then 27, was interested. His uncle was "in disbelief." Trible gave up a better paying job in Alexandria to move to a small town he had never lived in and to which his wife was less than eager to move. But "I saw an opportunity to hold office and return to an area I love." Now, eight years later, he is the Republican candidate for U.S. senator.

In a state where voters like to talk of a "Virginia tradition," Trible somewhat anxiously lists his ties to Virginia. His family lived in Essex County for generations, and though his father's business--he was an executive with International Salt Co.--took him elsewhere to live, the family spent vacations in Virginia. Trible himself grew up in Richmond, New Orleans and Clark's Summit, Pa., a high-income suburb of Scranton. And if one tends to doubt his assertion that he "always dreamed of holding public office in Virginia," he has made decisions at every critical point in his life that have led him in just that direction.

He chose to attend Hampden-Sydney College, for example, in Southside Virginia, the tenth oldest college in the United States; "I serve on the board and stay very active in the life of that old school." He attended law school at Washington and Lee, in the Shenandoah Valley town of Lexington. After law school he spent a year as law clerk to Judge Albert Bryan Jr. of U.S. District Court in Alexandria, and then became a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office there.

In all those years he was not involved in politics. His father thought of himself as a Virginia Democrat and voted Republican in national elections. Trible says he himself had "a strong belief in the free enterprise system, limited government, individual freedom and a strong national defense." What he seems to have brought to his own political campaigns is not political experience but a capacity for hard work. He served as law clerk in Judge Bryan's first year on the bench, when a lengthy vacancy had left a large backlog of cases. He claims the Northern Virginia U.S. attorney's office had the highest caseload per assistant in the nation when he worked there.

But he never doubted that he was a Republican. When he had to run for commonwealth's attorney in 1974 against a local lawyer who had sought the job, he ignored his uncle's advice to run as a Democrat or an independent and ran as a Republican. He won 80 percent of the vote --a good testimonial in a county small enough (12,000) that the performance of the local prosecutor must be a subject of everyday conversation. He may have been helped by the quick convictions he obtained in a notorious case: three Lorton inmates, released on a bus to attend a program at Federal City College, even though it was during the Christmas recess, stole a car, drove to Tappahannock, and robbed a bank.

Those who suspect that Trible moved to Tappahannock in order to run immediately for Congress are surely wrong; the seat was held, when he moved, by Thomas Downing, a moderate and popular Democrat who seemed unlikely to lose. But in 1975 the Republican state chairman came to Trible's house and suggested that he run for Congress; "you know, Paul, I don't think Downing is going to run again." To the surprise of people in Washington, Downing did quit; Trible had already laid the groundwork for his campaign. "I felt I had a great chance to win the Republican nomination"--there were only five elected Republicans in the whole district--"and then I'd only have to beat one Democrat." As it happened, the Democrat was overconfident and ran a weak campaign; Trible, though "I didn't know anyone outside Essex County," worked hard, raised money ably and won. Once in office, he worked hard and vocally enough--his big issue was trying to foil Carter administration plans to overhaul the carrier Saratoga in Philadelphia rather than Newport News--to win reelection by a wide margin in 1978 and unopposed in 1980.

Each of Trible's political breaks has come in the same way: an early tipoff that a job might be opening up followed by hard work. In 1979 he saw a Senate Republican Campaign Committee poll that showed Sen. Harry Byrd Jr. "not as strong as you'd expect," and he went around the state seeking support in the event Byrd retired. So a man who eight years before had been just one of several thousand young lawyers making a respectable living in the Washington metropolitan area, with little to single him out from the crowd, today stands a good chance of filling the seat held by Harry Byrd Sr. and Jr. for the last 50 years.