William Shepard, a retired Foreign Service officer who is seeking the Republican nomination for Montgomery County's 8th Congressional District seat, lashed out at his opponent yesterday, accusing her of back-room dealing and avoiding debate.

Shepard, 50, alleged that Del. Constance A. Morella, a Republican who has represented Bethesda in the Maryland House of Delegates for two terms, has been trying to get the nomination by capturing the endorsement of the National Republican Congressional Committee rather than appealing to the area's voters through public debate.

"What Connie Morella is doing is wrong," Shepard said at a news conference. "She is trying to circumvent the process and avoid the voters. She shouldn't get away with it and stop voter choice." Shepard said Morella has "obtained a petition studded with improper and inappropriate signatures to try and cut off primary campaign debates in Montgomery County."

But Morella responded that no such petition exists and that Shepard never asked her to debate him.

"I took around no petition," Morella said. "What was sent to the congressional committee was a letter from local and state Republican Party people and members of Maryland's congressional delegation indicating they think I have the best chance of winning the seat."

Morella said the letter was signed by Reps. Marjorie S. Holt (R-Md.) and Helen D. Bentley (R-Md.), Maryland Republican Party Chairman Allan C. Levey, Maryland Republican National Committeewoman Helen W. Chamberlain, Maryland National Committeeman Richard P. Taylor and 15 of 18 members of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee.

"In any kind of race you want as many endorsements as you can get," Morella said. "I'm shocked and disappointed that Shepard would be so negative with no facts. It must be a desperation move to get some publicity."

Shepard joined the Foreign Service in 1964 and served for about 20 years in Singapore, South Vietnam, Hungary, France and Greece. The Potomac resident and father of two daughters said he hopes to raise at least $500,000 for the race and will campaign on issues such as antiterrorist initiatives, insurance reforms to help deal with the crisis in the industry, and health care for the elderly.

Shepard is facing a tough campaign against Morella, 55, whom Montgomery County GOP officials have called the best shot to recapture the county's 8th Congressional District seat since Democrat Michael D. Barnes won it in 1978 after it had been held for nearly 20 years by Republicans. Barnes this year is running for the U.S. Senate.

Five Democrats also are seeking the seat. They are state Sen. Stewart Bainum (D-Montgomery), Leon Billings, Montgomery County Council member Esther Gelman, Wendell Holloway and former representative Carlton Sickles.