She's for good, safe schools. He's for good, safe schools. She wants to fight "traffic gridlock." He's fought "traffic congestion." She talks about health care. He talks about the environment.

Who's the Democrat? Who's the Republican?

To many voters in the south-central Fairfax County district where Del. James H. Dillard II and challenger Eileen Filler-Corn are campaigning, it barely matters. Put an (S) by both their names -- for Suburbanite.

This fall brings what many in Virginia consider the most important legislative fight in a century, with the Republicans -- who already control the state Senate and have effective parity in the House -- on the verge of wresting control of the General Assembly from Democrats for the first time since Reconstruction.

But that battle obscures another trend: Suburbanites have taken firm control of state government over the last generation. And both major political parties now craft their messages to win over these affluent, educated voters.

No matter which party wins on Nov. 2, the legislature will be filled by politicians who rank education as their top priority and pay attention to suburban concerns about transportation, taxes and the environment. Gun control is also increasingly on the state legislative agenda. So is controlling development in fast-growing areas.

The rise of the suburbs in recent decades has created a pragmatic brand of politics that relies little on party labels and heavily on delivering well-tailored messages door-to-door. Politicians say races will turn on how many suburban voters a candidate can meet in walks through neighborhoods and at civic association meetings and reach in targeted mailings.

That means continued payoffs for voters in Northern Virginia and like-minded suburban communities from the Roanoke Valley to Hampton Roads.

"On almost anything you can name," said demographer George Grier, "the suburbs are going to get more resources than the central cities. The votes are there."

Those votes could prove crucial this year for Virginia Democrats, who are hoping at least to maintain parity with Republicans in the 140-member General Assembly.

One of the Democrats' problems is that seven legislative seats are open because of retirements, and five of the retirees are Democrats. Sensing its vulnerability on open seats, the party is concentrating on knocking off some suburban Republican incumbents, such as Dillard. For that to happen, the Democrats' focus on suburban issues of schools, transportation and gun control must work.

"The battleground," said Democratic strategist Mike Henry, "is the suburbs."

During the 1990s, the U.S. Census Bureau said, the suburbs became the home of more than half of Virginia's population. Those same communities had just one-fourth of the state's population during World War II.

The reverse has happened to Virginia's rural areas. In the 1940s, half the population lived there; now, less than one-fourth does. Cities have the rest: just over one-fourth of the population, almost the same as during World War II.

The changes are more than academic. When the Byrd organization -- a political machine of rural Democrats headed by the late governor and U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd -- ran Virginia earlier this century, the vision of government was minimalist. That led to low taxes and spare state investment in schools, higher education and transportation.

Back then, the state paid for all road improvements in cash. But as more and more suburbanites move into the legislature, borrowing to speed road and transit construction has become popular. Borrowing also has accelerated major investments in higher education.

Suburbanites tend to favor spending on the government services they cherish -- schools, colleges, libraries and roads -- without higher taxes. Those forces were clear in the recent transportation debate.

Democrats came up with a $2 billion plan that involved no tax increases. And Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who is from suburban Richmond, overcame his reluctance to spend money when he proposed pumping $2.5 billion into transportation improvements. The governor also favors breaking the historic taboo against using the general fund -- which is supported by income and other broad-based taxes -- in crafting his plan.

"It's evidence of how much the suburban agenda now dominates Virginia politics," said Robert Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Gilmore rose to power on his proposal to cut the car tax, a plan enormously popular in suburban areas where automobiles are both more expensive and more necessary than in cities and even rural communities. Gilmore also advocated hiring 4,000 additional teachers and enforcing tougher school standards -- two issues popular in the suburbs where families with school-age children are concentrated.

Education sells well throughout the 41st House District, including parts of Burke and West Springfield, where Filler-Corn and Dillard are knocking on thousands of doors in neighborhoods filled with cul-de-sacs and basketball hoops.

Filler-Corn, the Democratic challenger, has canvassed relentlessly since May, rarely failing to point out her two young children, pictured on the back of her campaign flier.

"We definitely need to increase teacher salaries," she told a Fairfax teacher during one neighborhood walk-about. The candidate also is pushing school safety, saying she decided to enter the race after Gilmore proposed an amendment -- which narrowly failed -- to allow rural students to bring unloaded hunting guns to school so long as the weapons stayed locked in cars.

"Zero tolerance for guns on school property," she tells voters.

Dillard, the Republican incumbent, never fails to mention his background as a Fairfax teacher and school principal as he works neighborhoods in hopes of fighting off a challenger he said is his toughest in 20 years.

"I'm co-chair of the Education Committee, and I can see that's important to you," Dillard said as he noticed a 9-year-old girl inside the home of Roberta Sanders, a former teacher herself.

"We chose this house because of the school on this street," Sanders said.

Republican strategists see their rise in Virginia over the past 15 years as a product of rising suburban power. As income levels grew in these areas, so did concern about taxes -- the signature Republican issue since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980.

In 1997, Gilmore's proposal to cut the car tax led Republicans to a historic sweep of statewide offices and the first parity in the General Assembly since Reconstruction. Suburbanites were the key, Republicans said.

"They pay their taxes. They work for a living. They're raising their families," said Chris LaCivita, a GOP leader and former executive director of the state party. "That is the Republican Party's base vote."

But as Democrats' traditional centers of power in cities and rural areas declined in influence, the party began retooling its message for the suburbs. Many Democrats have distanced themselves from welfare, taxes and other traditional liberal issues as they seek to win over suburbanites. And their moderate social agenda typically fits suburban values.

There are exceptions. Prince William and Loudoun counties, counted among the nation's fastest-growing suburbs, have elected two of the most conservative Christian lawmakers in the state. Another leading Christian lawmaker comes from suburban Virginia Beach. Republicans typically win suburban voters who long for more traditional values in schools and public life.

Filler-Corn ran into the limits of even a crafted suburban message last week when she knocked on the door of Beth Luteran, a mother of two young children and a practicing Catholic. Filler-Corn favors abortion rights; Luteran doesn't. Filler-Corn is focused on improving public schools; Luteran wants vouchers to make it easier to send her children to private ones.

But even after Filler-Corn walked away, Luteran expressed gratitude for the visit, holding out the possibility of voting for the Democrat, since Dillard -- whom she hadn't met -- is also an advocate of abortion rights.

"I liked her because she's a real person," Luteran said. "She seems like one of us."


(This graphic was not available)