At a civic group forum in Silver Spring, Republican congressional candidate Elizabeth Spencer was asked to state her views on school prayer and abortion. On both issues, Spencer replied, "I do not feel it is an appropriate area for the federal establishment."

Then it was incumbent Rep. Michael Barnes' turn. He answered, "Mrs. Spencer and I, as is so often the case with these 'debates,' are once again on the same wave length."

And so it goes in the race for Maryland's 8th District congressional seat, often referred to as "the best seat in the country" because of its proximity to Capitol Hill and the intellect and civic activism of its well educated citizenry, which includes about 100 members of Congress and scores of diplomats, supergrade government employes and other assorted VIPs. Some observers say it is the nature of this unusual constituency to reject strident candidates in favor of campaigns and debates that sound more like academic symposiums.

That, some say, is why Spencer won the GOP nomination against the better known, better funded Marian Greenblatt. Montgomery's political junkies, who were gleefully anticipating a highly charged Barnes-Greenblatt bout, might find the current Barnes-Spencer race somewhat lackluster.

Said Barnes, "Where we disagree, we're able to do so with civility and respect. I think that's the kind of campaign Montgomery County deserves."

Said Spencer's legislative researcher James Berry: "They're both just so nice, they're trying to out-nice each other. I'm having grapefruit right now just to try to get the sweetness out of my mouth."

An example of the niceness: Speaking before a group of retired federal employes last Friday, Barnes ticked off a list of his endorsements and then added, "I hope that's not a negative reflection on my opponent. She's a very fine person who's served our community well."

When Spencer criticized the president's defense build-up, Barnes replied, "I basically agree with everything Mrs. Spencer just said." Both candidates agreed that federal pension funds should be protected and that federal employes should not be forced to join the Social Security system. They agreed that the best way to save the shaky system is to wait for the recommendations of the president's task force, which is expected to opt for gradual, phased-in changes.

But they don't agree on everything. Barnes supports a nuclear freeze resolution and Spencer opposes it as an unneeded restriction on the president. And Spencer, who has taken to touting herself as a champion of small business, criticizes Barnes for voting against Reagan's 1981 tax cut bill, which she said included tax breaks for small business, including tax reductions for sole proprietorships and increased investment credits.

Spencer blasted Barnes' sponsorship of a labor-backed bill to set up trade barriers for domestic automakers. She predicted that European countries would retaliate by blocking imports of U.S. high technology products, which would hit hard at the high tech firms on the I-270 corridor in Montgomery. A Barnes aide said he cosponsored that bill, along with 222 other House members, to send a message to the Japanese to stop dumping automobiles into the U.S. market.

But even when differing with Barnes, Spencer makes few bold pronouncements, no strident accusations, and never, never attacks Barnes. One of her key supporters, speaking off the record, expressed dismay that Spencer, even when trailing Barnes in money and organization, refuses to launch a serious attack.

Asked where the two candidates disagree, Quinn Scamahorn, Spencer's campaign manager, said "They are different in style. Elizabeth is much more thoughtful. Elizabeth is much more detail-oriented."

Barnes' is employing the same strategy he used successfully two years ago, in his rematch against former representative Newton Steers, the aristocrat Barnes beat for the seat in 1978.

While Steers tried to talk about offering a dramatic alternative, Barnes frustrated Steers by praising and embracing his liberal voting record and telling audiences then "the differences between us are a matter of degree."

The lackluster tone of this campaign is just fine for Barnes, a two-term Democratic incumbent in a county with a 2-to-1 Democratic voter registration edge, running in a year when voters may decide to vent their anger over economic woes by rejecting Republicans at the polls.

Barnes latest poll of 411 likely voters found him a whopping 45 points ahead of Spencer, leading her in every category except Republican voters and even getting a third of the GOP vote. And Spencer's camp, rather than issuing the requisite statement questioning the poll's accuracy, agreed that the results are probably close to the mark.

Spencer is counting on a late-inning, come-from-behind victory that depends at least partly on Barnes' becoming lazy with his 45-point lead. Spencer's supporters remember Barnes' initial victory over Steers in 1978, when the millionaire Republican incumbent, whose own polls showed him with a comfortable lead over Barnes, announced that he was so certain of winning that he would spend his time campaigning for other GOP candidates.

Although Steers and Barnes had similar moderate-to-liberal philosophies, the feisty young challenger harped on his difference with Steers over the Kemp/Roth tax cut proposal, and presented himself as a viable alternative. Spencer has not yet found such a dramatic difference on which to draw the battle lines. And Barnes, by repeatedly pointing out their areas of agreement, is trying not to let her find one.