Charles Gilchrist, Royce Hanson and John Menke stood on the steps of Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville Monday night glad-handing the delegates to the Montgomery Democrats' endorsing convention, seeking their votes. The fourth candidate for the county executives' slot on the Democratic ticket, however, Scott Fosler, walked tensely through the crowd, his lips drawn, and conferred with friends.

Moments later, Fosler, 32, an economics consultant, provided a genuine surprise in the budding political season when he announced from the podium that he was withdrawing "with reluctance and some regret" from the county executive's race to seek instead a seat on the County Council.

"I made the decision today (on Monday)," a few hours before arriving at the high school, Folser said afterwards. He stood in the wings at stage left and listened to Gilchrist, Hanson and Menke praise him for what in politics is called "courage."

"I probably could have won the primary," Folser claimed. "But that would have been an expense (of money and energy). And the problem of achieving a unified party would have been extremely difficult."

In a head-to-head contest the week before at the Democratic Coalition's endorsing convention, Folser had received 17 percent of the vote, while Gilchrist, Hanson and Menke had received 51, 22 and 8 percent, respectively.

The Democratic Coalition is a group open to any registered Democrat in the county. The Montgomery Democrats limits its membership to several hundred party officials and a few activists.

Fosler's withdrawal did not significantly change the impact of the evening, which ended with the Montgomery Democrats, like the Democratic Coalition, unable to endorse any of the three remaining candidates, none of whom received 65 percent of the vote, as is required by the rules.

On the fifth and final ballot, Gilchrist had 60 percent and Hanson, 40 percent. Menke, forced by the rules to drop out after the second ballot, had received 10 percent. Menke's votes were then split almost evenly between the two other candidates, an analysis of the tabulations shows.

Fosler lives in District 1, currently represented by council member Neal Potter. However, he is expected to run for one of the two at-large seats on the seven-member council.

Fosler's surprise withdrawal threw some of the Democratic Party planners into a tailspin when it created the possibility that the endorsing convention might actually end up endorsing someone, since the delegates would have only three candidates to vote for.

In order to avoid the anger and frustrations that might result if the conventions actually endorsed specific candidates for county executive, the Democrats in both groups have striven mightily to avoid angering anyone by making it almost impossible for any candidate to win.

The Democrats believe that with Republican County Executive James P. Gleason retiring this year, they have a good chance of winning the county executive's office, based on their two-to-one numerical superiority, and don't want to blow it with factional strife.