The first thing one is likely to notice about Wade Dunn is that he even looks like Jimmy Carter, with his thick mane of silver hair, blue eyes and ready grin. Politically, Dunn also thinks he will be Montgomery County's answer to Jimmy Carter: the little-known outsider to emerge from political obscurity to capture his party's nomination for county executive. As he takes his long shot, with a shoestring budget campaign and a round of visits to newspaper editorial offices, he talks about "government for the people" and restoring "trust" in elected officials.

"I would hope you don't have to be rich or a football player to be considered a serious political candidate in this county," a frustrated Dunn said recently. "I believe I'm running a campaign the way you should. I'm running on the issues--and it ain't working. The press can't make you, but they certainly can kill you."

Dunn claims he has about $28,000 on hand for a race in which the incumbent, Charles W. Gilchrist, is expected to spend at least $125,000. When he approached various county interest groups--builders, unions, teachers--he found most of them already signed on with Gilchrist. And when he opened a recent copy of The Washington Post, Dunn found on the opinion page articles by three county executive candidates--and he had never been invited to submit one.

Dunn has a quick explanation for his current political woes: the press. With the media not treating him like a serious contender, Dunn said, no one else believes he is serious.

"I have yet to run into one person who doesn't think I'm capable," Dunn said. "I have only one problem, and that's name recognition, and that means money. There's no question that the press is critical. As I go around, people ask how come the press isn't covering me."

He added, "I've been fighting upstream for six months."

Dunn, 40, is a manager for Media Systems Corporation, where he develops learning systems for businesses, governments and universities around the country. His management experience, he said, qualifies him to run the county's government bureaucracy, since management style is bringing people together to work in harmony. The Gilchrist style, according to Dunn, is adversarial, rewarding friends and alienating enemies.

"If you look at Gilchrist, it's a good-guy, bad-guy mentality," Dunn said. "It's a fortress attitude. That's responsible for the split on the council."

Dunn in fact hopes to be the beneficiary of that council schism, between Gilchrist's strong council backers and his most vocal critics. The two sides have formed slates, the pro-Gilchrist side headed by council President Neal Potter and the other headed by council member Esther Gelman. Potter's supporters call the Gelman side obstructionist, while Gelman calls the Potter slate "rubber stamps."

Gilchrist most likely will endorse the Potter slate, and Dunn said he most logically will support the Gelman slate. Gelman had been hoping council member David Scull would head her ticket and run for the executive slot, but has kind words for outsider Dunn. Scull announced last week that he would run for reelection to his council seat.

Gelman and Dunn have met and discussed the possibility of Dunn joining the group, but Dunn needs the backing of Gelman's slate more than the other way around.

Gilchrist, for his part, seems to be adhering to the incumbents' tradition of ignoring primary challengers. Mention of Wade Dunn elicits more than a few chuckles and calls of "Wade who?" from Gilchrist staffers. One aide jokingly likes to point out that Dunn leads off one of his campaign leaflets by answering the question "Why am I running?" with the response, "Why was I president of my dorm in college?"

But Dunn trudges ahead, followed only by his own shadow but seemingly undaunted by the relative inattention his candidacy has attracted. His main ammunition is a poll, commissioned by Republican contender Luiz Simmons, that shows Gilchrist with a 30 percent favorable rating. About 30 percent of those polled were unfavorable and the remaining 40 percent had no opinion. A negative rating that high, the pollster said, shows potential vulnerability.

"That (30 percent figure) translates into 70 percent of the people are looking for an alternative. That's what's called a vacuum in leadership," said Dunn.

No one is betting that Wade Dunn will fill the vacuum. But as one of Dunn's neighbors (a Republican politician) recently recalled, "Wade was one of the first people I remember saying Jimmy Carter would win the Iowa caucuses. So who knows?"