At a Fairfax County store, a man dressed as an elephant helps hand out fliers for Republican state Sen. Jane H. Woods. Her conservative independent rival, Virginia T. Dobey, reads a Bible passage at Mass. And Democrat Leslie L. Byrne, a onetime congresswoman, sits at her keyboard before dawn, trolling for votes in cyberspace.

There are few places left for Virginians to hide in these final days before Tuesday's elections. Candidates are on television, in your mailbox, at your doorstep. Roadways are ablaze with signs.

But beneath the gloss and growl of the campaigns are debates over the region's top issues: easing traffic, improving schools, preventing gun crimes.

The Republicans' drive to take control of the 140-seat state legislature for the first time in more than a century--and the Democrats' drive to stop them--could turn on a dozen races, half of them in the Washington suburbs. Party leaders have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars targeting voters in these districts with messages intended to resonate in Northern Virginia.

Their polls show voters in the Washington suburbs clamoring for smaller classes, more teachers, higher academic standards. They want growth managed, commutes shortened, guns controlled and taxes lowered. Multilingualism also is in, with candidates printing fliers in Spanish, Korean and Chinese and being careful not to skip television and radio appearances geared to immigrant communities.

And as both parties struggle for an edge on core issues, candidates magnify slight differences. Nuances are obliterated. Voters are left grasping for meaningful distinctions.

"I knew I was going to vote for you because of the handshake," Cliff Roe, 40, told Dobey as she campaigned outside the Westlawn Supermarket in Falls Church. He couldn't name a single issue she favored, but he admired her confidence. "You can tell something about a person from a handshake."

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of such individual decisions by voters across the state will set the direction of Virginia politics for the next two years and maybe longer.

Democrats, facing a decade-long trend of ebbing power and a disadvantage in fund-raising, have their hopes pinned on challenges to three Republican delegates. The Democrats also believe they must hold the seat left by retiring state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr.; Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D) and Republican Daniel F. Rinzel are battling for that seat.

But the sharpest fight is underway among Woods, Byrne and Dobey, in the 34th Senate District, stretching from Fairfax City east, past the Capital Beltway to Baileys Crossroads. The three candidates and their volunteers weave their way through the district each day, walking in neighborhoods colored with fallen leaves, then out to bustling grocery stores and shopping plazas.

There Woods, 53, a retired first-grade teacher with a moderate record in the state Senate, can be found knocking on doors or cooing at children at Halloween parades. "Are you a tiger?" she asks a boy in orange and black stripes. "Can you roar?"

Her main rival is Byrne, 52, a former Democratic congresswoman and state delegate so eager to get back into office that she returns campaign e-mail at 6 a.m.

However she speaks to voters, Byrne tells them that Woods hasn't done enough to relieve traffic congestion or restrict gun sales. Byrne also hits Woods, chairman of the Senate Education and Health Committee, for overseeing the introduction of Standards of Learning tests--what Byrne calls "third-rate tests for a first-class education system."

"It was the constitutional obligation of Ms. Woods and others to make sure these tests were not rushed," Byrne said during a brief debate Sunday on Newschannel 8. "Now we're trying to undo what was done wrong."

As Byrne and Woods exchanged words inside the television studio, Dobey, the 44-year-old independent, was on the station's front stoop, where a reporter interviewed her for a segment on the candidate to be aired later. The outsider was finding a way in.

Dobey, who considered challenging Woods in the GOP primary before launching her independent candidacy, is an engineer and former Navy commander with a religious bent and a dedication to conservative ideology.

She is so fed up with what she calls Woods's "liberal" views on abortion, euthanasia and education that she is running an aggressive campaign that Republicans fear could split the GOP vote and give Byrne a victory. Dobey's campaign claims to have distributed fliers proclaiming "Freedom, Faith and Family" to all 70,000 homes in the district last weekend.

Sunday night, all three candidates stood together on the set of a live Vietnamese American cable talk show, each looking for an edge among one of the district's several immigrant communities. Woods managed a Vietnamese greeting, "Chao ong, chao ba." Byrne spoke of her role in creating a federal "Vietnamese Human Rights Day." And Dobey likened them both to Vietnamese communists. "My two opponents both believe in big government," she told viewers. "They believe in the kind of socialism you left behind in Vietnam."

Throughout Northern Virginia, attacks are growing louder and more shrill by the day as campaigns swap accusations of dishonesty, dirty dealing and bad taste.

George E. Lovelace, a Democrat running for delegate in central Fairfax, sent out a brochure supporting gun control that featured a child in cross hairs. Republican Thomas M. Bolvin pictured his southern Fairfax opponent, Del. Gladys B. Keating, in the center of a $100 bill to highlight a fund-raising infraction.

Woods is airing a television ad that shows unflattering shots of Byrne and flashes the words "sneaky politician," "false claims" and "lie."

"She's back," an announcer says in an ominous voice. "Leslie Byrne is back, along with her history of negative campaigns, half-truths and deceptions."

And Byrne has mailed out fliers featuring the enthusiastic statements of gun manufacturers beside a grainy picture of Woods. The flier claims Woods "refuses to ban the sale of a semi-automatic assault weapons such as the AB-10" and "opposes childproof trigger locks on firearms."

Woods offers a more nuanced version, saying she opposed bills to ban all semiautomatic weapons but has voted to ban specific assault weapons similar to the AB-10. And she has backed trigger locks but stops short of voting to require them.

Woods and Byrne, like most Republicans and Democrats in Northern Virginia, favor hiring more teachers and dedicating more money to school construction. Both also support abortion rights, though Woods favors some restrictions.

On transportation, Woods and Byrne support the packages put forward by their parties, both of which would put billions of dollars into new roads and transit statewide.

Byrne has campaigned harder on the issue, taking credit for preliminary federal funding for a rail line to Dulles and touting a bill she sponsored in the Virginia General Assembly requiring that trucks be covered.

"After a decade in Richmond, she's still asleep at the wheel," says one Byrne mailing on Woods. A second is a manila folder with the words "JANE WOODS Traffic & Trans. Record"; inside, a yellow note says, "After a decade in Richmond, Jane Woods has not introduced a single bill to address Fairfax's traffic crisis. TALK IS CHEAP."

Byrne's emphasis on transportation, particularly mass transit, is reaching some residents. Voter Josephine Ford, 73, stood outside the same Westlawn Supermarket, holding a pot of purple mums. "This is crazy," she told Byrne. "Why do we have to have all these cars?"

But Kaye Mullen, a 51-year-old software engineer, was moved when Woods knocked on her door.

"Education is huge for me," Woods told her. "I taught first grade in this county and had 42 children. . . . It was horrific for them and for me."

Afterward, Mullen, who said she usually votes for Democrats, was ready to vote for Woods. "I was impressed that she thinks she can make a difference in education," Mullen said. "I haven't voted in a while. But I haven't had anyone knock on my door."

CAPTION: Incumbent Republican Jane H. Woods, left, and Democratic challenger Leslie L. Byrne share a laugh before a debate in their fierce campaign for a swing seat in the Virginia Senate.