Virginia Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., one of the most conservative members of the House, announced yesterday he was abandoning the Democratic Party to become an independent, dealing a potential blow to Democrats' hopes of retaking the majority this year.

Goode's announcement ended a year-long tug of war between the two parties for the loyalties of the maverick two-term lawmaker. It means the Democratic Party will have to win one more seat than it otherwise needed this fall to take control of the House--or persuade Goode to vote with them in selecting the next speaker early next year.

The full effect of the announcement remains to be seen, as the 53-year-old lawmaker was coy about whether he would help the Democrats or Republicans in organizing the House next year.

Goode could conceivably end up being a crucial vote determing control of the House, if this fall's elections keep the chamber closely divided between the two main parties. His decision leaves the House, which reconvened yesterday, with 222 Republicans, 211 Democrats and two independents.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg noted that Virginia Democratic Rep. Owen B. Pickett's announced retirement this month had already given the GOP an excellent chance to pick up a seat in the state. He said the two political developments made it less likely the Democrats could win the majority.

"It's not just one seat. It makes it dramatically more difficult for the Democrats to take the House," Rothenberg said. "Two seats doesn't sound like much, but given the small numbers we're talking about, two seats is a lot."

Goode--who has privately told allies he fears Democrats gaining control of committees with jurisdiction over spending and tobacco--said in an interview yesterday that the change allows him to vote his conscience without betraying his constituents.

"You don't have some Democrats telling you you didn't vote with the national party line enough," he said. "I will be voting as I have been in the past."

Goode's Southside Virginia district spans 17 counties west of Richmond on the North Carolina border and includes the cities of Charlottesville, Danville and Martinsville. Population losses due to the fading fortunes of the area's tobacco farms and textile mills make it a prime candidate for redistricting next year, and the GOP-controlled legislature in Virginia could made life difficult for any Democratic incumbent there.

Goode has made trouble for the Democratic establishment in the past, bucking the Clinton administration on major gun control, abortion, spending and impeachment-related votes during his three years in office.

Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), who discussed the switch every few weeks with Goode in locales ranging from the House floor to cocktail receptions, noted the two of them vote together nearly all the time.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) issued a statement yesterday saying he was "heartened" the Virginian had not joined the GOP and planned to preserve Goode's committee assignments.

But National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) said of Goode's switch: "Any hope the Democrats had of winning back the House just ended."

With just six seats now dividing the parties, any small shift in the political landscape becomes magnified. For example, Goode's news came just as Democrats learned that Louisiana attorney Marjorie McKeithen, who came close to defeating Rep. Richard Baker (R) in 1998, would not be running against him this year.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Erik Smith minimized the impact of Goode's switch, saying he would now occupy a similar position to independent Bernard Sanders, a socialist from Vermont.

"If after all the sturm and drang and pomp and circumstance he doesn't caucus with the Republican Conference, that's not particularly good for Republicans," Smith said.

Goode handled his announcement yesterday with typical deliberation and secrecy. Press secretary Linwood Duncan typed up a draft announcement statement for his boss a week ago. But Goode took it and hedged on when he would release it.

Yesterday morning at 8, Goode and his wife, Lucy, an unpaid office volunteer, huddled in their Rocky Mount campaign office and began faxing the statement to a list of dozens of recipients, Duncan said.

While national Democrats said they were not planning to encourage a primary challenge against Goode, the 5th District's Democratic committee chairman, Carl Eggleston Jr., gave "50-50" odds that local Democrats might be so roused by Goode's switch that one might run.