The seven Democrats running for Montgomery County Council, who referred to each other as "headline hunters" and "rubber stamps" when they ran on two separate primary slates, lately have been all smiles and embraces in the face of a common enemy, the Republicans.
The seven GOP council challengers, meanwhile, have been attacking from seven sides, trying to pierce the Democrats' public facade of unity by reminding audiences of the council's past public spats. Their common theme before audiences and in brochures is the Democratic party's dominance in the county is unhealthy and has not produced quality leadership.
This year's election is being played out against the backdrop of reduced resources for local government. No candidates this year are proposing costly new programs. There are few, if any, bold initiatives. Rather, th talk from candidates of both parties is how to cut government's costs and hold the line on taxes, as county revenues are expected to decline.
Ordinarily, the talk of cost-cutting would benefit Republican candidates. But this year, the Democrats are touting themselves as the biggest penny pinchers and the best able to hold down taxes.
"One of my principal concerns is the problem of costs and taxes," council member Scott Fosler told a group of retirees. "I think we [in Montgomery] have to set an example of how to reduce the costs, reduce the tax burden and keep the same level of services."
The Democrats, who couldn't agree on anything when they split into two warring camps, now are sounding a common theme against the Republicans. They never acknowledge their GOP opponents, and they emphasize the need for experience at a time of shrinking county resources.
When they do mention the Republicans, it is only to paint the entire group as politically unknown and fuzzy on the issues, from county executive candidate Joseph C. McGrath on down.
At the same time, the Democrats are downplaying their own differences, differences that just last month were being called the most bitter intraparty warfare in two decades.
"It's called survival," said council member Rose Crenca at a recent kiss-and-make-up press conference, by way of explaining the sudden turn of heart. "I wouldn't say all of us were bitter. I'd say some of us just disagreed."
Added council president Neal Potter: "The differences among Democrats, although expressed vehemently, are small compared to the differences between the parties."
As for County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, who in many ways became the central figure in the council feud, he has agreed to accept "half of the responsibility" for the rancor and recently promised better communications with the council to avoid such a split in the future.
The Republicans, however, see that Democratic primary feuding as their key trump card in a county where Republicans are outnumbered 2-to-1 in voter registration, and they are not about to let the memory of the Democratic rancor die easily.
GOP at-large candidate Leonard H. Robinson Jr., director of an international study center, told a recent forum that the current council's internal warfare was the product of Democratic party domination.
"An essentially un-Democratic state of one-party rule has existed in this county," he said. "It is time to cast aside excessive internal bickering and factionalism."
The other Republican at-large candidate, retired foreign service officer Malcolm Lawrence, has been circulating copies of a letter he wrote to a local newspaper criticizing the Democrats' "constant kiss-and-make-up activities."
"I'm afraid if the Democrats do much more kissing," he wrote, "they will soon end up with a serious epidemic of political herpes disease. . . . If Charlie Gilchrist and the six council incumbents are reelected to office... we would have the Gilchrist rubber-stamp slate at constant loggerheads with the vindictive so-called merit team headed by (council member) David Scull.
"We would have four more years of Esther Gelman fantasizing that she is the real county executive, and four years of David Scull running his 1986 county exec race."
Republican candidate Alvin Arnett, a former Nixon administration appointee and executive at Consolidated Rail Corp. (Conrail), said the campaign issue this fall is "stability and integrity."
Before the Allied Civic Group forum last week in Silver Spring, Arnett accused the current all-Democratic council of threatening the county's physical stability by committing "premeditated landslaughter on the community." He said the county's fiscal stability was also threatened, and he rattled off a series of budget figures to show that funding for some social programs had declined in constant dollars.
Potter disputed those budget figures, saying Arnett was "confused."
The Democrats talk of the council having kept the county's budget growth below the rate of inflation, and they talk of fiscal prudence needed in the wake of federal program cutbacks.
Before an audience of retired federal employes in Bethesda, Crenca said: "I come from a very frugal family. We are all penny pinchers." That is an important qualification, she said, because "we have to hold on to the money we have and do it wisely because we cannot raise taxes. But we have to hold the level of services we have."
Added council member Michael Gudis: "We are going to face some very big budget cuts in the next couple of years. The question is, what are we going to cut? Or are we going to raise taxes?"