One afternoon in the fall of 1974, Winfield Kelly, then a Democratic candidate for county executive in Prince George's County, was taping a free campaign interview for a local radio station. An aide, John Lally, was asking the questions.

"Every other sentence seemed to have "quality," or "new quality," or "working for a new quality," in it," Kelly recalled recently. "I said the word so much - and it sounded so right - that I guess it just stuck in our minds."

Since his election that year, Kelly has put a lot of time, effort and money into making sure that every voter in Prince George's remembers the word "New Quality." What began as a modest political slogan has turned into the institutional theme of the county government.

At his 1974 victory party, Kelly celebrated below a large banner that read: "For a New Quality." Shortly after he took office. Kelly created a volunteer group called "Citizens Working for a New Quality" and he put a "New Quality" logo on thousands of notices and brochures distributed by his administration.

Then, in the fall of 1975, Kelly began a television, print and radio advertising campaign to attract new businesses to Prince George's. The promotional effort has cost county taxpayers more than $200,000 over the last three years and it, too, has featured the "New Quality" image.

This extensive campaign to boost the county image serves as a classic example of how an incombent can use political office - shrewdly and legally - for both public and partisan benefits. Some incumbents do it through newsletters, others by getting their names on maps and construction billboards. Few local politicians do it with the thoroughness of Winfield M. Kelly Jr.

"Winnie" Kelly, the 5-foot-6 millionaire, is cruising along Rte. 202 in his black, police-chauffered limousine. The night before, Kelly had watched a Washington television station's feature report on him that had presented him in a very good light. During that report, Kelly had been asked about the relationship between the "New Quality" campiagn and his own political ambitions. "At this time," Kelly told the television reporter, "I would say the two are synonymous."

As the sleek black car glides past the Capital Centre on the way to the county offices in Upper Marlboro, Kelly is asked to elaborate on the television statement.

"I don't know how you could separate them," he says. "When I took office, the inner perception in Prince George's was one of less than boastful pride - because of haphazard development, police brutality allegations. When I was growing up in Brentwood, I thought this was a super place to live. It wasn't until I got into politics that I realized the image of the county wasn't what it should be.

"I thought there should at least be a message of hope. People's lives are affected so much by their perceptions. They need a feeling of security, of comfort. That is the image we have tried to create. Image often charts the course for reality to follow."

It took Kelly amd his assistants a year in office to get anyone to take the image-making seriously. An attempt to get people to refer to the country as Prince George's instead of by its familiar initials - P.G. - was met with public indifferences, if not ridicule. A series of trade journal advertisements that featured Prince George's proximity to Washington and Baltimore by nicknaming the county "Baltington" were quietly junked after people said they were contrived.

Even the radio campaign got off to an uncertain start. At first, Kelly let his Economic Development committee develop the radio ads with the professional guidance of the Earle Palmer Brown public relations firm. Kelly listened to the original spots before they hit the airwaves.

"He blanched when he heard them," one associate said. "They were kind of funny sounding. They used professional actors and made the whole thing sound too hokey. We put them in a vault somewhere."

Kelly then assigned one of his five political aides, John McDonough, to oversee the radio campaign. McDonough was given specific instructions to make the ads appear as realistic as possible while still carrying forth the optimistic "New Quality" image.

Earle Palmer Brown subcontracted the Prince George's radio account to Eli Productions of Washington."It was not put to us as a political football," said Eli's Mike Pengra, "and we did not read it as such. We were given 50 or 60 people to interview at their homes. We signed releases stipulating that we would not edit them out of context. Those interviews were used as the core of the ads."

McDonough recruited the county residents who were interviewed by Eli Productions. "We sent out letters to the county council of PTAs and to several civic associations," McDonough said. "We asked those groups to supply us with people."

The radio ads first appeared on 10 area radio station last fall for a short run that cost the county about $38,000. They resumed last week for a longer run that will go into the middle of May, this time at a cost of more than $60,000. According to McDonough, the ads are scheduled to resurface next fall for another $60,000 run at a time when Winfield Kelly, the author of "New Quality," will be heavily into his reelection campaign.

Although the expressed purpose of the ads is to attract new industry to the county, many of Kelly's opponents argue that they are blatantly political. "At this point, there is no doubt in my mind that the ads are political advertising," said Melissa Martin, chairman of the Prince George's Republican Party. "They are using county taxpayers' money to say that Oswald the Rabbit is wonderful. We know that there is a "New Quality" in Prince George's - it's rotten."

Kelly and his assistants call it "New Q." They say it is an active verb that reflects a never-ending quest to improve the housing, education, race relations and economics in their sprawling country of 700,000 people.

"What we're trying to do is work on a mindset out there in the populace," said one Kelly aide. "We're trying to graft it onto people's emotions. you don't go to McDonald's because the food is nutritious. You go to McDonald's because it's a happy place, it makes you feel good. It's razzmatazz. It's Kelly's way. It wouldn't go over very well if James Gleason tried it."

Gleason is the county executive of Montgomery County, Prince George's suburban neighbor to the north and west. If Montgomery County has an image problem, it is that it appears too wealthy, too comfortable, sealed off somehow from the daily problems of Washington and Prince George's. Kelly's effort to boost his county's image is in one sense a spirited competition with Montgomery and its leader, Gleason, who has often treated Kelly with sarcastic disdain. (Gleason's usual greeting to Kelly at social functions is "Ah, to be a success story.")

The two countries are constantly competing for economic development and for good coverage in the press. It is no accident that Kelly, at his budget press conference this week, emphasized that his budget brings taxpayers true relief in the form of lower tax bills whereas Gleason's does not. "We're going to burn 'Mo.Co.' on this one," one Prince George's official said gleefully earlier in the week.

Of the six radio spots running in the Washington area today, only one mentions Winfield Kelly by name. That one has Kelly talking about the "open government" in the form of monthly town meetings that he has instituted. Another spot features Police Chief John W. Rhoads talking about the improved police department, and another has schools Superintendent Edward J. Feeney discussing the public schools.

The Kelly trademark is on every ad, however, as each one closes with a plug for "new quality."

Kelly is heard talking about a "new quality that is emerging in Prince George's." Superintendent Feeney asks county residents to "work with us for a new quality in education." Chief Rhoads says, "Let's work for a new quality in public safety."

Even one of the anonymous citizens in the ads picks up the theme, ending a brief panegyric on the county parks by saying: "It is part of a new quality of life in this county."

The other voices on the ads undulate with "problems they're working on ... good progressive government ... exciting ... beautiful ... tax dollars well spent ... fantastic teachers ... quality education ... super professional (firemen) ... challenging ... stimulating."

McDonough, Kelly's political link to the "public service" advertising effort said he did not think the radio spots should be stopped during the 1978 election campaign. "If it's all right to run them on a nonelection year, then it's okay to run them at any time," siad McDonough.

Lally, who giggles at the mention of "New Q" ("I've just about over-dosed on it," he says), took the argument one step further. "Don't look now, but Kelly is the county executive. From day one, everything he does in office is part of this reelection." The only reason people reelect you is if you make things better. Part of making things better in 20th century America is promoting the image of your jurisdiction."

Martin, the Republican, said she had written and was ready to send to the Washington newspapers a letter complaining about the radio ads when she first heard them last fall. But she said she remembered Republican County Executive William Gullet's tactics in his 1974 campaign against Kelly.

During that campaign, Gullet set up an independent, supposedly non-partisan committee to promote the county with a "Prince George's is Number 1" theme. Billboards to that effect were put up all over the county. They happened to be the same color - black and gold - as Gullett's campaign colors.