More than once while out campaigning, Democrat Reuben Spellman has been approached by solicitous county residents who smile at him and tell him how well he looks. While Spellman smiles back in appreciation, the remark underscores a problems he faces in trying to replace his wife, Gladys, in Congress: his age. At 71, he has been unable to shake rumors that he may not be up to the rigors of the job. h

Lawrence Hogan Jr., a Republican candidate for the same Prince George's County seat, has similar age trouble. Three weeks ago, his chief primary opponent called him "just a boy" and, since then, the 24-year-old son of the county executive has been labeled too young for Congress.

Under normal circumstances a candidate's age would be at most a minor bit of campaign rhetoric quickly lost amid the weightier issues of a race for Congress. But in the crowded and abbreviated 5th District campaign, in which discussions of policy have given way to a struggle to get one's name known, age could well be a critical factor in the Democratic and Republican primaries next Tuesday and in the general election May 19.

As a result, both the Hogan and Spellman camps, organized around candidates with famous Prince George's political names but only minimal experience, are more than a little concerned. Both have attempted during the course of the month-long campaign to defuse the age issue, even as their opponents -- subtly and openly -- attempt to keep it alive.

For Spellman, the problem is this: At 71 he is older than all but one minor candidate, has been through open-heart surgery because of serious clogging of two major heart arteries and has been unable to squelch recurrent worries that the strains of office, which he has never before experienced, may bring upon him the same medical problems that befell his wife. e

Gladys Spellman, 63, held the 5th District seat for three terms until she suffered heart failure Oct. 31, from which she has not recovered. Her continuing stroke-like, comatose state caused Congress to vacate her seat and prompted the current special election to finish her term.

Although Reuben Spellman says that few voters ask directly about his age or health, he is aware that some people think "that I'm sickly, that I won't finish out the term, that I won't finish out the term, that I won't make it into office." At the same time, his major opponents in the April 7 primary, all of whom are 20 to 30 years younger, have been assuring voters that, if elected, they will be in office for many years to come.

So for the last few weeks, Spellman, a retired federal worker, has attempted to demonstrate his vitality by offering on one occasion to take reporters on a trot around his Laurel neighborhood, by telling people to contact the physician who performed his heart bypass surgery and, as a final touch, by mentally compiling a list of politicians 70 years old and older. Says Spellman, "I think with age comes maturity."

Hogan's campaign people have also compiled an age list. Theirs identifies young members of Congress and notes the number of times candidates have won election to Congress before reaching their 25th birthday.

Hogan has good reason to keep these facts readily available, for he will not be 25 years old -- the minimum -- until six days after the May 19 general election for the seat, a fact that has in the last few weeks become quite widely known.

Mostly it is known because Hogan's major Republican primary opponent, Bowie Mayor Audrey Scott, has followed a campaign strategy of publicizing Hogan's age, with a surprising degree of success. "We do hear about [his age] a little bit," said Hogan press aide Chuck Kline. "You'll hear from someone, 'I don't know much about the candidate, but I know he's 24 years old.'" To counteract the age issue, Hogan's campaign literature speaks of a candidate "whose youth belies his experience in government and politics."

Despite these efforts by the Hogan camp to stress its candidate's experience, Scott apparently has determined that her age-centered strategy is working. As a result, the campaign is now carefully focusing on specifics: ithe exact date of Hogan's birth. As in: "He could very well miss a couple of votes on important matters" in the five days between the election and his May 25 birthday, when he can legally be sworn in, said Scott campaign manager Stu Piper.

Hogan's campaign managers, while obviously unhappy about the attention given the age issue, say that the new focus on his birthday is ridiculous. Nonetheless, they have come up with their own careful analysis of the birth date issue. "It takes a few days [after the May 19 election] anyway to get the official vote tallies," said a Hogan spokesman. "Then, if Congress follows past practice, which they probably will, they'll take off for the Memorial Day weekend on Thursday, so no one could be sworn in then. And Monday is a holiday, so Congress isn't in session. And that's the day Larry turns 25, so he can be sworn in the next day and he won't miss one day." l