A controversial Christian candidate and a scathing campaign letter have ignited a political bonfire in northwest Fairfax County, where six Republicans are fighting for three nominations to seats in the House of Delegates.

With the Tuesday primary less than a week away, Republicans in the 49th District, which includes the city of Falls Church and some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county, have started feuding. It hasn't been polite.

"There's been a little bit of dirt slung around . . . but I refused to get down in the gutter," says Claiborne (Buck) Morton, a first-time candidate from McLean with a big campaign budget and recently articulated religious beliefs that have shocked both his supporters and opponents.

Last week, during an interview with a Fairfax teachers group, the 51-year-old McLean businessman and Sunday school teacher said, "We'd be better off if only Christians were elected" to public office.

"We were speechless," says Lara Shainis, a Jewish member of the panel from the Fairfax Education Association's political action committee, which interviewed Morton. "We didn't say anything, and he just went on to school prayer."

Morton's comment, along with a letter from two women's groups that accuses opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment of espousing "a politics of oppression and fear," has intensified what had been a sleepy political campaign.

The candidates say the timing of the primary -- just a day after Labor Day and a day before the start of public school -- the confusion caused by court challenges to redistricting and normally low voter turnout for primaries, means well organized special interest groups may have a significant impact on who wins the nominations.

And because the areas included in the newly drawn 49th District have a recent history of Republican voting, primary winners will have a significant advantage over their Democratic opponents in November.

There are two incumbents among the six Republican candidates. Vince Callahan, 49, who owns a publishing company, is seeking his eighth two-year term in the House. Martin Perper, 42, a management consultant, has served in the House since 1978. The newcomers are Gwendalyn Cody, 59, a retired school teacher who last year ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Fairfax Board of Supervisors; Tom Cagley, 41, an economic consultant who ran unsuccessfully in 1977 for the House; Robert Andrews, 61, a McLean lawyer, and Morton, a retailer of stationery and office supplies.

Morton has mounted the strongest campaign. He has spent $12,000 and attracted to his political gatherings Republican luminaries including Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Rep. Philip Crane of Illinois and Secretary of Education Terrel Bell.

Yesterday Morton said his reported statement about his preference for Christian office holders was correct, but he complained it had been taken out of context.

"The statement was made in all innocence and sincerity . . . and it got twisted all around," said Morton. "I even heard that I had said it would be better if all school teachers were Christian. It may not be a bad idea, but I didn't say it."

The religious controversy has had to share the spotlight this week with indignation over a letter sent by the Virginia Women's Political Caucus and Virginia's National Organization for Women. That letter endorsed Perper, Callahan and Andrews, lauding them for "unwaivering sic support for the ERA."

It went on to say the three other Republican candidates "espouse narrow, sectarian and in some cases, radical, right wing views of the issues." Without referring to Cagley, Cody and Morton, the letter said Perper, Callahan and Andrews have "become targets in this Republican Primary for those who espouse a politics of oppression and fear."

"It's a very vicious letter," says Cagley, who worked as an aide to Callahan in Richmond for two years.

"I had nothing to do with that thing. I disassociate myself from disparaging comments," said Callahan, who realizes his support of the ERA will probably hurt more than help him in the Republican primary. "It put me in an embarassing position."

Patricia Winton, a chairperson for NOW's political action committee and one of those who signed the letter, yesterday said she had no second thoughts about the language of the letter and little sympathy for the complaining candidates.

"If the shoe fits," said Winton.

Supporters of the ERA say they are doubling efforts to elect sympathetic candidates this year because it is the last chance for the ERA to be ratified before the proposed constitutional amendment dies. To some candidates in the 49th District, that is welcome news.

"The whole issue of equal rights needs to be taken away from that ridiculous amendment, which is nothing but hogwash," says Cody, who has enlisted campaign support from Republican Sen. Eva Scott of Dinwiddie, the only woman serving in the state senate as well as one of its most conservative members.

While the controversies over religion and the ERA were provoking comment this week, Morton defended his marriage of politics and religion.

"I'm not one of those bow to the west, praise the Lord, screaming charismatic Christians," said Morton. "If everybody in the world was a Christian it would be a better place."