There is a belief among Montgomery County Democrats tht when it comes to political combat, the natural enemy - the county's Republican Party - is often forgotten in the melee. In Montgomery County, where Democrats outregister Republicans 2 to 1, Democrats fight with each other.
This year, when most elective offices are up for grabs and Democrats have their first real chance to capture the county executive jobs, the Democrats are again at war.
A coalition of seven party factions who consider themselves the "outs" have formally organized a counter-movement to those regarded as the party "establishment."
If past elections are any example, bitter primary races could result and possibly allow Republicans to break in to the currently all-Democratic Council Council, the overwhelmingly Democratic legislative delegation and hold on to the county executives's office.
"Democrats in this county have been electing Republicans for years," said Montgomery Democratic State Sen. Victor L. Crawford. "They would rather have your man lose, although a Democrat, then have your man win if he's not in their faction."
"If Democrats can't come up with consensus candidates, their factions will feel no obligation support each other," observed Sen. Howard A. Denis, the lone Republican on Montgomery's 26-member state legistive delegation. "It's a vicious cycle for them. This great Democratic Party is engaged in destroying itself."
The latest round in the longstanding war began earlier this year. Party chairman Jim Doherty, who heads the Democratic Central Committee, proposed that a preprimary convention of Democratic incumbents and precinct officials be held to produce "knowledgeable" endorsements by active Democrats.
In his efforts to make peace among party factions, Doherty argued that such a slate would be more representative of the specturm of Democratic sentiment in the county and thus offer the political "balance" necessary for a winning ticket.
Party regulars agreed with him, though narrowly, and voted 114 to 100 to call the convention later this spring.
But other party activists, who believe that the voters' choices in a primary election should be the first test of candidates' strengths, charged that the party, slate-making under the "guise of officaldom" is "undemocratic," "divisive," "elitist" and "Paternalistic." It also tends to reelect incumbents, they said.
Led by supporters of Lanny Davis, who failed in his 1976 congressional bid as the Democratic csndidate, and of Idamae Carrott, who lost the county executive race in 1974, these party activists agee that endorsements are useful - but not by the party machinery.
"It's not their role, by law or morally, said Stan Gildenhorn, a lawyer who worked for Garrott and Davis - and currently supports Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis for governor.
"The press and the public will perceive a convention as an official party endorsement," he said.
These dissidents decided to retaliate. The seven factions formed the Democratic Coalition to draw up an alternative slate after their own convention.
"The only way to defuse what the central committee has done and to give the voters a choice is to come on equally strong," said Judie Mopsik, a coordinator of the coalition who is president of the Alliance for Democratic Reform and a former Davis fund raiser.
The coalition sponsors ars the Democrats United for Victory, the Montgomery Democratic Coalition, the New Century Democrats, the Alliance for Democratic Reform, the Assembly for the Endorsement of Democrats Candidates, the District 16 Democratic Club and the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Breakfast Club.
They have many of the same members, contain some elected officials and all believe that candidates should be held accountable to a platform. Doherty opposes a platform as too monolithic."
Although this dispute involves only a few hundred of the county's most active Democrats, could shape the rank-and-file preferences in the election. What is pitting them against each other actually has less to do with issues than with personalities and power, some say.
"It's a classic conflict," said one activist. "The 'ins' are in and the 'outs' are out. The 'out' want in."
In Montgomery County, unlike the rest of the state, it has always been difficult to appeal to the voter on the basis of party loyalty. "It depends on whether you think the party is the be-all and the end-all," said Del. Judith Toth (D-Montgomery). "I've said, 'no, it isn't,' even though I've been an active Democrat since 1954. I prefer to vote on people and issues rather than the party." Toth opposes a party convention.
In Montgomery Counyt, among the affluent, highly educated, and civicminded, politics is an "upper-middle-class sport," in the words of former party leader Richard Schifter.
Informed county voters rely on their own knowledge rather than on their party's guidance to make electoral choices. Officeholders, constantly prodded by what many county elected officials regard as an imaginative constituency of civic activists, are expected to behave with independence rather than bend to party machinery, special interests or vote-trading common to legislative accomodation.
Many hesitate to beat the drums for "the party" because it is seen by voters as reminiscent of the now abhorrent "organization" politics that liberal suburban voters threw out in the 1950s.
Even the chairman of the county's state legislative delegation, Del. Don Robertson, said, "There isn't a member of the (all-Democratic House) delegation I can go to and say, "'I want your vote on this.' We don't operate that way. But there is a good spirit of cooperation.
Some Democrats believe that the free-wheeling system that has developed as th alternative to "bossism" has destroyed the effectiveness of the party because individual impulse and factional rivalries thwart effective party discipline.
"The real issues center around political control," said Doherty, chairman of the county Democratic Central Committee. "The divisions the enmities and personal hatreds in our party are so deep, they're real hatreds."
The latest rifts go back as the late Schifter, who gained control as a "reformer" in 1966 and was praised for his ability to bring disparate factions together, was himself eventually criticized by some Democrat activists for his heavy-handed rule.
Schifter invited party officials to a preprimary convention in 1970 as party factionalism was growing. The current generation of party reformers believe the primary should be a candidat's first test of strength and many have never forgiven him or the system he introudced, county Democrats say.