When he worked in the commercial center of Bethesda, Andrew Nelson would leave his home in Germantown by 5:30 a.m., arrive by 7 and spend about an hour eating breakfast and reading the newspaper before starting work at 8 a.m.

When he waited until 6 or 6:30 a.m. to leave, the 25-minute trip would turn into a stop-and-go ride along I-270, and Nelson was not able to get to his job at Suburban Bank on time.

Those were the mornings, he said, when he cursed the politicians.

Now, as the September primary for state Senate and other elections draws near, residents of upper Montgomery, like Nelson, are seeing more attention focused on the overburdened roadways and massive traffic jams of their area.

In the District 15 Senate race, the Democratic primary opponents of Sen. Laurence Levitan, Stephen Leas and Anthony Puca, and the sole Republican candidate, Robin Ficker, are trying to turn commuter discomfort into political hay.

The challengers are hoping to pin the frustrations of the upper county on the record of Levitan, a well-connected, 52-year-old lawyer from Potomac who heads the Senate's powerful Budget and Taxation Committee.

His challengers maintain that Levitan has not been able to secure adequate money for roads or schools in the district, the largest in the county. It spans an area from wealthy Potomac to the more modest subdivisions of Germantown and Gaithersburg.

The challengers are attempting to paint a picture of Levitan as an Annapolis backroom wheeler and dealer who does not really help the folks back home.

Ficker, 43, a former delegate and former Democrat from Potomac, contends that "People feel they are a hostage on the highway . . . and Sen. Levitan gets a great deal of the blame in this case."

Leas, 33, a lawyer and photography store owner who lives in Germantown, says that Levitan, as a longtime leader in the Senate, "has to bear some responsibility for not bringing back the services."

Puca, a 38-year-old owner of an office furniture supply company based in Herndon, lives in Montgomery Village but is building a home in Potomac. He says of Levitan, against whom he ran unsuccessfully in the 1982 state Senate primary, "I think he has hurt Montgomery County."

Levitan, a state senator since 1975, said the charges are false. He said that during this year's legislative session, for example, Montgomery County received an additional $20 million for roads and another $6 million for new school construction over and above the regular allocations, in large part because of his efforts.

"They are absolutely wrong," Levitan said of the challenger's contentions.

Levitan maintains that in an arena like the Senate, "when you are one of 47 senators and every other jurisdiction is after Montgomery County," his opponents "would be run over like they were sitting on a track with an express training coming after them."

Others, such as former state senator Victor Crawford, who for the past two years has been the Montgomery County Council's lobbyist in Annapolis, give Levitan his due.

"To say he hasn't done a good job of bringing money to Montgomery County isn't fair," Crawford said.

Levitan describes himself as a down-to-earth politician who is working hard for the people of his district.

"Thank you, Larry, for the things you've done," says one of his campaign ads. It goes on to cite state money that was allocated for such county services as a treatment center for head injuries, a shock trauma unit at a local hospital, legal services and a center for the handicapped.

Levitan is on the Democratic Party slate, which means he can pool resources with other candidates for fund raising and advertising, an advantage over his opponents.

But throughout the attacks on Levitan's record, the race has focused on issues rather than personalities, and has not been as highly charged as the 1982 race between Puca and Levitan. That year, the two candidates accused each other of conflicts of interest. Puca charged, among other things, that Levitan supporters ripped down his campaign signs.

Levitan said he hopes this year's campaign will rise above all that.

"There won't be any of that by me, but I know my opponents will do anything to win," he said.