James S. Gilmore III's career in Virginia politics is marked by the sturdy signposts of a Republican suburbanite who scratched his way up the party's ladder: First, his election as county prosecutor. Then, as attorney general. Finally, as governor, inheriting the mantle of the more flamboyant George Allen.

On Tuesday, Gilmore may get a huge payback for all those years spent toiling in Republican ranks, for once again the GOP is within striking distance of capturing enough legislative seats to leave the party in clear control of state government.

The governor is passionately intent on winning. "The entire future of Virginia will be decided by these elections, to be sure," he said.

Despite a highly personal quest for victory, involving more than a year of fund-raising and campaigning across the state, Gilmore insists the election is not about him. It is not, he says, a referendum on his governorship--perhaps on GOP policies or candidates he supported, but not on James Gilmore himself.

"It is not on my administration," the governor said. "It is on the direction of the commonwealth that we have laid out, all of us."

Allen (R) made himself a defining figure of the 1995 legislative elections, when his party also was on the verge of winning control. A tobacco-chewing lawyer who did short tours in the legislature and Congress, Allen cast the campaign as Armageddon between treacherous liberals and fellow Jeffersonian conservatives. But his overheated message failed with voters who otherwise liked his folksy style. He picked up two Senate seats, achieving a tie with the Democrats, but won no majority in the House of Delegates.

"George Allen worked hard in '95, but what did he get? Zip!" said Christopher Spanos, a longtime advocate in Richmond for liberal causes.

This year, Gilmore has not sought to play the role of central figure. That has suited Gilmore's low-key personality, but it also gave Democrats a smaller target to aim at in their campaigns around the state.

While Gilmore sometimes has dealt harshly with those in his party who challenged him, during this campaign he generally has talked without much rancor about his fellow Republicans and "opposition" Democrats. As the campaign intensified this fall, he has been supportive of some colleagues, such as Sen. Jane H. Woods (R-Fairfax), with whom he has clashed, and he allowed GOP candidates to find their own roads to victory.

"I certainly hope that the public will turn to the new and reject the old and will elect new Republicans into the Senate and the House," Gilmore told reporters last week, "and I'm going to go out there on that cause and campaign for people.

"But at the end of the day, they have to win it themselves."

His painstaking effort to capture the legislature has been pure Gilmore, involving a handpicked band of campaign-hardened loyalists, mind-numbing hours of planning and travel, record amounts of money that the governor himself raised and controlled, and a district-by-district ground war that left no Republican incumbent unprotected and lifted several GOP challengers into competitive positions. Gilmore's two political action committees have raised $3.3 million.

The governor's political year has had its moments of confrontation. In June, Gilmore was humiliated when a GOP primary candidate he had anointed lost to a moderate from Richmond who had bucked him for more than a year. The governor's approach only added to the complaints that his leadership style, however quiet, was still his way--or else.

And in a fund-raising video for Republicans that was released in September, Gilmore lambasted his "left-turning, liberal-leaning" antagonists.

Still, Gilmore's campaign has had none of Allen's shrillness, the kind that led to a 1994 jibe about kicking the Democrats' "soft teeth down their whiny throats." Gilmore reached out a hand to his party in August when he countered Democratic proposals to increase transportation spending with his own $2.5 billion plan. He has pledged a continuation of his signature program, the car tax cut, and of his efforts to increase accountability in public education. But he has yet to make any major proposals for the second half of his term.

"People are happy," said John Hishta, the GOP's leading operative in Northern Virginia. "Do they want the basics like schools and roads? Sure, they do. But they don't want their taxes raised to do it."

Spanos, who has been watching Virginia governors since 1966, said: "Gilmore had the tenacity and the right set of tools this year. In terms of doing what he needs to, he's doing a damn good job."

Since June 1998, when he appeared at a Virginia Beach golf tournament for a state senator, through Sunday, when he flies to Roanoke and Newport News, Gilmore will have crisscrossed the state for 52 campaign appearances, helping out some candidates two or three times. He cut more than a dozen radio spots and made two television commercials for one House ally.

Departing sharply from the GOP's 1995 experience, Gilmore insisted on a smoothly coordinated direct-mail effort to support his candidates and wound Democrats. Mail can be the most effective way of communicating with voters, and the Gilmore team perfected it, unlike Allen strategists who in one celebrated Northern Virginia race sent out mail two weeks after the election.

For all the differences between the Gilmore and Allen styles, longtime observers of the Virginia GOP trace the party's gains to moderate Republican governors of the 1970s through the Allen years and on to Gilmore.

Allen agrees. "People have comfort in the Republicans, in our administration and the Gilmore administration," he said.

Allen accomplished much of his agenda--abolishing parole, reforming welfare and prison sentencing and toughening education standards--but said he "could have cut taxes more," had he won just a few more House seats in 1995.

Unlike Allen, Gilmore prefers to work quietly through trusted legislators on smaller, achievable goals rather than on the sweeping issues that Allen seemed to prefer. Still, the flavor of government likely would change in 2000 if Democrats were suddenly a dispossessed minority and Gilmore and his allies in the assembly flexed their muscles anew.

Conservatives hope that some of their long-standing proposals would flower in a Republican-controlled state government.

Last week, for instance, leaders of the Christian Coalition and the Family Foundation and antiabortion activists joined Gilmore as he signed an executive order requiring state agencies to review the impact of their regulations on families. The order's first provision instructs agencies to assess their rules for any impact on "the authority and rights of parents in education."

The executive order was telling, Republicans said. Martin D. Brown, the Family Foundation's executive director, said he hopes Gilmore will be receptive to his group's big issue for the 2000 assembly: income tax credits for parents who pay out-of-pocket costs to home-school their children or send them to private or church-based schools.

"It's our hope that the governor will have a conversation about the issue," Brown said. "His hands are full with SOLs [Standards of Learning] and school safety, and I don't think he's going to champion a school choice initiative. But we'd like him to think about it."