Gov. James S. Gilmore III returned to the vote-rich Washington suburbs yesterday to campaign for Republican control of the General Assembly, as part of a tireless quest for a legislative majority that he and other party leaders say is within their grasp come Tuesday.

Starting a final campaign weekend that included an afternoon stop in Virginia Beach and appearances in Roanoke and Newport News planned for today, Gilmore tried to stir support during an appearance with a Republican who's who at the Woodlawn shopping center in Fairfax County yesterday morning.

The Democrats' lone statewide official, U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb, kept a dawn-to-dusk schedule in Southwest Virginia, while in Northern Virginia, the party's candidates and campaign workers fanned out for parades, leaflet drops and door knocking.

Republicans, who spent most of the century as the underdogs in state politics, already have a majority in the Senate and need to pick up just one seat in the House to win control. Since last year, they have held the three top statewide offices, and this year mounted their most aggressive campaign ever for legislative power, heavily outspending Democrats.

While all 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot, both parties have focused on about a dozen races statewide that are considered competitive, many of them in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Democrats have attacked Gilmore on issues involving transportation, education and gun control, among others, but generally struggled to distinguish their messages from those of Republicans.

In Fairfax, an upbeat Gilmore told a gathering of Young Republicans that they were on the verge of victory. "You can feel it," Gilmore said to the Woodlawn rally. "This is the first time in history when we can change history. . . . Are you ready to do that?"

Gilmore, who under state law cannot succeed himself, has sought to cast the elections not as a referendum on his nearly two years in office, but as a vote of confidence in the conservative direction he and other Republican leaders have taken in Virginia since George Allen's 1993 election as governor.

Longtime GOP consultant Tim Phillips, running a dozen legislative campaigns across the state, and other senior party strategists see an irresistible math to the races this year, when no federal or statewide candidates are on the ballot.

Many incumbents face no opposition Tuesday, a fact of political life that may help the Republicans. In the House, 26 GOP delegates, five in Northern Virginia, have a free ride, as do 14 Republican senators, including two from the Washington suburbs.

After years of scraping for campaign money, Republicans came into their own in 1999 led by Gilmore's zealous effort that generated more than $3 million.

Issues that could have bedeviled the GOP on Tuesday--Gilmore's truculent stance in the Hugh Finn right-to-die case or the daily transportation headaches faced by many Northern Virginia voters--did not resonate deeply into the fall season as Democrats had hoped.

In booming localities such as Hampton Roads and the Beltway communities around Washington, Democrats sought an 11th-hour edge. At a news conference on Friday to wrap up their Northern Virginia campaigns, Democrats pledged to improve public schools, hold health-maintenance organizations accountable to their patients, seek more money for roads and mass transit and fight for tougher gun-control measures.

Senate candidates Linda T. "Toddy" Puller and Leslie L. Byrne, along with Dels. Gladys B. Keating and Robert H. Brink and aspirants Kristen J. Amundson, Eileen R. Filler-Corn and James E. Mitchell III, boasted of endorsements that included Handgun Control Inc. and portrayed themselves as the best hope for relieving the region's traffic congestion.

Transportation is just one issue on which "voters have a clear choice in this election," Puller said. "We have proposed a plan to jump-start Virginia's system of roads and mass transit. The Republicans put political consultants in charge of Virginia's highways, and now they're offering excuses why the [Springfield] Mixing Bowl construction will drag on for nearly a decade to come."

Gilmore said yesterday that Democrats were trying to "exploit" traffic congestion.

"The other party has been in control of the House of Delegates forever," Gilmore said. "They created this problem out here. And now they want to exploit the frustrations and concerns of the men and women of Northern Virginia."

From Gilmore on down this year, politicians set records in fund-raising and campaign spending. For instance, in Virginia Beach, two candidates poured $900,000 into their race for a part-time seat in the House of Delegates that pays $18,000 annually. That sum easily set a record for a House seat.

Gilmore shot one toughly worded video asking reliable Republican givers for millions of dollars in his epic effort for GOP seats in the assembly. Mark R. Warner, the Alexandria millionaire who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996, got an early start on his 2001 governor's campaign by sprinkling some money around to Democratic friends across the state.

In the most closely watched race in Northern Virginia, state Sen. Jane H. Woods (R-Fairfax) raised more than $455,000 against her Democratic opponent, Byrne, who collected more than $295,000. Independent Virginia T. Dobey raised more than $47,000.

The Woods-Byrne battle is widely viewed as one of the competitive races that could determine the balance of power in the assembly. Theirs is in many ways a grudge match rarely seen in Northern Virginia, pitting two former House colleagues against one another. The campaign also involved U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Woods ally who emerged this year as a key money man for Republicans; Davis unseated Byrne from her seat in Congress in 1994.

At yesterday's Fall Festival parade in Annandale, the stinging pamphlets and rhetorical barbs seemed lost in a blur of last-minute hand-shaking.

Byrne waved at cheerleaders and greeted military veterans in a neighborly atmosphere that left little room for talk about gun control, transportation or other hot issues that dominated the race.

"On a day like today, people don't want to talk about issues," said Byrne, as her husband festooned their red Chrysler Sebring convertible with signs and flags. "Most people have made their mind up by now. It's really just flying the flag for the faithful."

Michelene Pryor said she welcomed Byrne's return to politics.

"I'm glad she's back and I hope she wins," said Pryor, who lives in Annandale. "I started voting for her when I first moved here 10 years ago."

After her appearance at the parade, Woods went on to a Halloween march thrown by two civic associations, followed by a W.T. Woodson High School football game and a Halloween costume contest.

"It's politics from the grass roots," said Woods's precinct coordinator, Kevin Dunn. "That's the way to get elected, to go knocking on doors and talk to people. You've got to touch people, not just go on TV."

Other closely fought races just outside Washington include the campaign for the state Senate seat being vacated after 28 years by Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), in which Puller is in a spirited contest with Republican Daniel F. Rinzel.

Puller's departure from the House created an intense race of its own; Republican Scott T. Klein is locked in a battle with Amundson that both sides said is too close to call.

Scott Keeter, a political analyst at George Mason University, said that throughout the year Gilmore "has done a very good job of responding to the Democrats' issues, getting resources to where they need to be."

"He's done it in a way that kept his profile just low enough," Keeter said. At the same time, "I don't think Democrats have done a very effective job in distinguishing themselves from Republicans on critical issues."

"It's a very tough environment for Democrats," Keeter added. "The economy's great, there's very little anxiety about crime, and welfare reform and the environment are not on the table."

"There's no overriding tide" sweeping against Republicans, Phillips said. "I don't sense anywhere that it's a referendum on the governor."

Near the Route 1 site of the Gilmore rally, in front of a Food Lion, several Mount Vernon residents said they were still undecided and had not yet sorted through piles of campaign literature.

Bill Burk, 53, said his biggest concerns were transportation, education and taxes. Not strongly aligned with any party, Burk said it might be a good idea to give Republicans control of the General Assembly.

"I say we give them a shot at it this time," said Burk, who coordinates internships for college students. "If we can continue reducing taxes, it would be great."

Eleanor A. Landgrabe, 61, a retired teacher, said she was concerned about education and rapid development. She said she would vote for both Democrats and Republicans but had not seen candidates of either party spending enough time talking about development.

"The pace of growth and development in Virginia needs to be monitored," she said. "That will help the gridlock problem in transportation."

Polls will be open Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Staff writers William Branigin and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.