Montgomery County Council member Esther P. Gelman unveiled yesterday a committee to study "the depth of her support for Congress" but left little doubt that she will join a crowd of Democrats jockeying to replace Rep. Michael D. Barnes in next year's election.

Declaring that she has "the best chance" to win, Gelman, a three-term council member known for an outspoken style and support for development of the county, said at a Rockville news conference that she was forming the committee because supporters have been "vigorously urging me to make the race."

Gelman, first elected to the council in 1974, said the 75-member committee will act as her "eyes and ears" in the community. But she said she expected to hear only good news and probably will formally declare her candidacy early next year.

Barnes, a popular Democrat who represents the 8th Congressional District encompassing the heavily populated heart of Montgomery County, announced plans to run for the U.S. Senate last month, prompting a half-dozen county Democrats to start maneuvering for his seat.

And county Republicans have been eyeing the campaign, saying they believe that the election offers the best chance in a decade to capture that office.

Del. Constance A. Morella (R-Montgomery), who is considered a strong contender for the office, is expected to announce her candidacy formally next month. William Shepard, a retired Foreign Service officer, has announced his candidacy.

"We now have a woman to go head-to-head with a Republican candidate who is a woman. That negates that issue -- assuming, of course, she wins the primary," said Democratic Party Chairman Jay Bernstein.

The party chairman said Gelman would have to be considered the front-runner given her tenure on the County Council and the fact that she has run three countywide campaigns.

"She has name recognition far and above any others. I think you have to assume that she is in front," he said.

State Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), who also is considered a leading Democratic contender, said Gelman, who has received financial support in past races from county developers, would be a formidable opponent.

But the multimillionaire businessman, whose family owns a string of nursing homes and motels, said, "I think I am best able to continue Mike Barnes' leadership position, and I think I am the best hope for unifying the party."