Conflict was probably inevitable. Slap down a new town - complete with high rises and shopping centers - in the middle of the rolling countryside. Move in 40,000 persons of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. Change the economic, social and political mix of a small, rural county in a single decade.

The formula invites clashes between the old and the the new. But when Columbia first opened nine years ago, few would have anticipated the bitterness of the conflict between the ambitious new town and surrounding Howard County.

The county's old power structure has toppled. A new, Columbia-dominated one has taken its place. Emotions run high. Bad feelings and name-calling abound.

"There is a real strong, feeling that Columbia is taking over the whole county." Charles E. Miller, one of the ousted former political powers, declares solemnly in his sparsely furnished office in nearby Ellicott City. "They have a real political machine out there. They eat, sleep, and think nothing but politics. The county government, piece by piece, is going under their control."

Perhaps a larger county could have absorbed the conflict - as Fairfax County has largely done in the case of Reston. But in small Howard County (population 105,000), the clash has been raging fiercely for more than two years and shows little sign of ebbing.

Columbia, located between Washington and Baltimore, opened to its first residents in July, 1967, promising to become a model for "the next America" - a planned, self-contained new town. Originally, it was scheduled for full development in 1981 with 110,000 residents. "Beset by financial problems, developers scaled down building and now the city is not expected to reach full development until 1989.

Nowhere is the conflict clearer than in the pages of two area newspapers, the Columbia Flier, a slick, modern tabloid with a liberal political philosophy, and the Howard County News, a combative, conservative weekly.

Both are lively and highly partisan, written more in the style of political journals of the 19th century or the underground press of the 1960s than of traditional modern suburban weeklies.THe prosperous Flier is owned and edited by S. Zeke Orlinsky, who is young, outspoken, urbane and liberal. He, as one might suspect, is pro-Columbia. The struggling News is edited by Robert E. Watson, who is young, outspoken, homespun, and conservative. He is vehemently anti-Columbia.

The two editors are constantly at each other's throat, fighting their highly personal battle in their editorial columns. In an editorial last January, for instance, Orlinsky called Watson and Miller, a News stockholder, "two neanderthal Republican reactionaries," who had used "a smokescreen of fear, insinuation and innuendo to further strengthen any anti-Columbia feeling that exists."

Accusing the pair of painting a then-current zoning battle as "an issue of US versus THEM, the unwashed hordes against the peasant farmers," Orlinsky said "their sole purpose is to destroy this community and its land values in an attempt to return Howard County to its previous 'bucolic' bliss."

Watson, in turn, charges that Orlinsky is a tool of Columbia developers, who keeps telling his readers "that the rednecks and peasants out in Howard County are trying to destroy Columbia." In 1974, Watson editorially suggested "The coming Christmas season is a perfect time for an econmic boycott" of Columbia merchants who advertise in the Flier.

Watson reserves his greatest contempt for James W. Rouse, the Columbia developer, and his principal financial backer, Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., which Watson says is "attempting to squeeze its money out of Columbia" and not living up to its promises.

Rouse, Watson charges, "sees himself as a great historical figure, a quasi-religious figure . . . He wants to create a monument to himself. He designed a social life-style and type of community where anyone who doesn't conform feels uncomfortable . . . In terms of American politics, Columbia is as far left of center as it's possible for a large number of Americans to get."

But the conflict is more than a war of words between two outspoken editors, It's a clash over life-styles, a struggle for political power. And in the last two years, the pendulum has swung decidedly in the direction of Columbia.

Like most power struggles, it involves only a fraction of the population. But it has spilled over into a host of volatile issues: a zoning proposal by Columbia developers to increase the number of multifamily dwellings in the new town; an effort to build a new hospital outside Columbia; controversies over where to put a new sanitary landfill and corrections facility; a move to create a county consumer protection agency, and a series of political confrontations.

The watershed was the 1974 election when a County Council slate led by Miller, a councilman for a dozen years, was defeated by a slate described by the Flier as "four people from Columbia and a fellow traveler from Fulton," a small neighboring community.

"The election heralded a new era for the county, a change of generations," said Orlinsky, who backed the slate. "Miller ran a very anti-Columbia campaign. His ads said, "Say No to Social Adventurism in Columbia.'"

What a lot of people were saying, Orlinsky said, "was we had too many blacks, too many jews, too many single women and too many people living in apartments; that we were unwashed transients. Columbians are smart enough to know when someone is screwing them, so they voted (Miller) out. I don't know what he expected."

Pro-Miller forces, however, saw the election in an entirely different light. To them, it represented the rise to power to "the Columbia machine." As they tell it, the "machine" has three elements: the Columbia Democratic Club, a liberal political group originally organized around opposition to the Vietnam war; the Columbia Flier, which is distributed free each week to all residents of Columbia, and the developers of Columbia, the Rouse Company.

The second great test was a redistricting referendum, "Question C" on the ballot last fall. It would have abolished the current practice of electing Council members from the county at large in favor of a plan to set up seven councilmanic districts. Each district would then elect it's own Council member.

The plan would have divided Columbia into four districts, none of them completely in the city. The Flier saw it as an attempt to "balkanize Columbia." "What they want to do," editorialized Orlinsky, "is split the Columbia vote, dilute it and expand the size of the County Council to effectively deny majority rule to the people of the county."

Predictably, the Howard County News disagreed - with vengeance. Calling it "the most important issue facing" the county, editor Watson wrote, "A voet for Question C will end the disenfranchisement of three-fourths of Howard County . . ."

With the current County Council, the League of Women Voters and the Columbia Democratic Club leading the opposition, the referendum was soundly defeated, 20,809 to 15,636. Columbians voted 5 to 1 against it. One-third of the voters of the rest of the county opposed it.

The vote, pro-districting spokesperson Marie Zimmer said, "proved our point that it's virtually impossible for the scattered forces of Howard County to defeat the Columbia machine."

It is easier to mold opinion in Columbia than other places, she alleged, because many residents are newcomers who live in townhouses and apartments. "Many of these people have more time to ply their political interests. They don't have the responsibilities others in the county have." The Columbia Flier, she added, "really does shape opinion because it's distributed free. Most people out there are so much in debt, they can't afford to buy another paper."

Voter registration figures tend to contradict her analysis, however. They show 20,339 of Howard County's 49,403 making them a clear minority.

But the figures do carry a strong political message. They show, for example, that 4 out of 5 Columbians register as Democrats or independents, and that in the last two elections, Columbians have voted remarkably alike on local issues fought on a pro or anti-Columbia basis. Even more important, the figures indicate that the country's registration has tripled in the last decade, meaning that 2 out of every 3 current voters are new residents.

The message should be clear to any politician. The political power of the county rests in the new voters, whether thry live in Columbia or elsewhere. And anyone who simply appeals to the old line political forces in the county is doomed on election day.

The leaders of the 300-member Columbia Democratic Club and the County Council uniformly declare that there is no political machine in Howard County. Their success at the polls, they say, has resulted from an antagonism to ousted power broken like Miller, who ignored their needs, an ability to built coalitions with other dissatisfied voters in the county, and skillful and time-consuming door-to-door campaigning.

"The people who live in Columbia are very issue-oriented, those in the country aren't." says Lin Eagan, president of the CDC. "Many have a history of voluntarism. The people attracted to the place, especially in the early years, were attracted by "the Columbia dream." They believed in it. The idea of integrated living, a planned community, it all appealed to them.

"Before they came along. Howard County was a small, folksy, very rural place,' she continued. "When you add a large population of new people with different ideas of how they want to live their lives, things change. I think this change frightened some."

"It's unfortunate that it's one of the things that comes with development and growth," said Virginia Thomas, head of the County Council. "People who have lived in a place a long time resent any change in their neighborhood.

"What concerns me is I'm not sure if there is as much conflict as some would have us believe," she added. "I think a lot of these people have very personal political goals to regain power."