Howard M. Smith, the Montgomery County clerk of Circuit Court, said he was already at work one morning recently when his two opponents in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary--Fred M. Rusillo and Ruth Vurek--appeared at a candidates' forum and charged that he lacks the administrative abilities to run the office efficiently.

It was the latest in a long series of political events Smith has shunned.

"I think my first priority ought to be to do the job I'm paid to do," said Smith, 57, of Dickerson, who has served as clerk for four terms. "I'm campaigning just like the other candidates. I just believe in putting my efforts where they're going to bring the greatest return."

Smith, who so far has not appeared at a political event at the same time as his two challengers, said he has spent his time knocking on doors to solicit votes and sending out 40,000 campaign flyers.

Vurek and Rusillo contend that Smith is afraid to appear with them and reply publicly to their criticisms.

Rusillo, 30, of Gaithersburg, resigned his post as director of the child support enforcement program in the clerk's office to challenge Smith. Vurek, 49, of Bethesda, sells real estate.

"Howard Smith took over the court when it was a 'Mom and Pop' grocery store," Rusillo frequently tells his campaign audience. "Now it's a supermarket with all kinds of intricate and automated services. What the court needs now is someone trained in the law and in court administration. I'm the only candidate with those qualifications."

Rusillo has proposed a 12-point plan that he says will "bring our court up to national standards."

Among other things, Rusillo said, his plan would create the court's first manual for standards and procedures and revamp the court's personnel system, under which, he said, the current employes are among the lowest-paid government workers in the area.

But Smith, who is both the court administrator and clerk of court, said there are many facets of the clerk's office that Rusillo does not understand.

"Mr. Rusillo did some good work for us," Smith said, "but he is not an administrator."

For the past several weeks, Vurek has been locked in a battle with Smith in an effort to obtain copies of two financial audits of the clerk's office.

"I am being stonewalled by Howard Smith," Vurek told members of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Democratic Breakfast Club recently. "Mr. Smith is a public official who has decided that his files are not to be opened to public scrutiny."

Vurek said audits she obtained through the Maryland General Assembly show that Smith uses "sloppy practices and procedures" in his handling of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money.

If she is elected, Vurek said, she plans "to order a complete audit of the office and make the audit available to the public."

Smith said that he doesn't object to Vurek seeing the documents she has requested, but that he has decided to submit each request to Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs for a ruling to ensure that there are no violations of privacy laws.

If he is reelected, Smith said, he plans to address some of the problems about which his opponents have complained.

He said he will seek improvements in the court's computer system and personnel salary structure, and changes in policies that govern indexing, audits, microfilming and job classifications.

"I work on this job six or seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day," Smith said. "It's only natural that the person with the job has to make some judgment calls every day. And it's easy for a Monday-morning quarterback to come later and say that those judgments were wrong."