Looking back, Montgomery County Council member Isiah Leggett still figures it was worth the try.

It was just three months ago that Leggett, using the skills he has honed as an attorney, college professor and politician, urged those involved in the debate on the future of downtown Silver Spring to discuss the issues calmly. Let's avoid, Leggett reasoned, "the height of hysteria."

Since Leggett made that plea, however, the opposite has occurred. "People on both sides are responding very emotionally. There is a lot of misinformation, a lot of extremes being stated . . . and that doesn't make for very logical debate," Leggett said.

Even in a county where little is done without citizen comment and the vigor with which public policy is scrutinized is a source of pride, the debate over Silver Spring is extreme. It has become very personal and, some say, very nasty.

In recent weeks, for example, opponents of County Executive Sidney Kramer's plan to allow a massive redevelopment of the downtown and members of his administration have traded accusations with citizens groups that the other side purposefully distorted facts.

Suspicions abound. The County Council screened prospective speakers for public hearings on Silver Spring later this month, saying it wanted to ensure that there is a fair hearing to all points of view. But proponents and opponents cried foul at what they call a blatant move to manage debate.

Feelings run raw. Members of the Silver Spring-Takoma Traffic Coalition were told by officials that it is against county law to place informational fliers on the windshields of cars in county garages and they charged that the county was trying to intimidate them.

And, rumors fly. Vicious stories circulated about the personalities and motives of those on every side of the issue. The debate is all the more interesting because despite the differences of opinion, the goal is the same.

Kramer -- who wants to raise the ceiling on how many jobs to allow in Silver Spring to accommodate Lloyd Moore's proposed project of office, hotel and retail space -- said his goal is a thriving business community where people can work, shop, live and play. Silver Spring residents who oppose Moore's plan as too massive said that they also want the downtown revitalized but that Kramer's methods will choke the neighborhoods with traffic congestion, a la Tysons Corner.

"It's the same thing as hawks and doves. They both say they want the same thing: peace. But one would get it by arming and the other by disarming," said a Silver Spring resident bemused by the warring factions.

Kramer said he thinks that residents' fear of change and the unknown are at the heart of the bitter debate. That's why, he said, he has ordered his recent public relations blitz so that people can have information they need to make decisions.

But what former Planning Board member Betty Ann Krahnke sees happening is what she called the "natural human reaction to distrust something pushed so hard, so fast." She said it is like going to buy a car and being told that if you buy it right then, you can have it for that price and "you are naturally distrustful."

That analogy perhaps is at the heart of the uneasy debate. The jury is still out on where Kramer stands on development issues and some people in Silver Spring are not quite sure if they can trust what he is selling them.

Talk to Silver Spring residents with some misgivings about the plan and they will say that Kramer enjoyed widespread financial backing from developers in his crushing victory last fall over David Scull, who ran an antigrowth campaign. They often mention Kramer's business background and note that the lawyer from the premier development firm of Linowes and Blocher who helped raise money for Kramer's campaign now represents Moore. They have no specific accusations, just unease.

It is a concern that Kramer denies and dimisses. "Sixty-five percent of the citizens who heard that issue debated for a year and a half made a very clear and precise statement on Election Day that it was garbage and they didn't believe it," he said in a briefing with the press Tuesday. Kramer said he has no ties with any developer and, as a matter of fact, suspects that developers are not too happy that he has asked some of them -- including Moore -- to scale back their developments.

One group opposed to Kramer's redevelopment plans has had printed 500 bumper stickers proclaiming "I voted for Sid and I'm sorry I did." It is "a refrain we kept hearing and it reflects a certain disillusionment," said Judy Reardon of the Citizens to Preserve Old Silver Spring. She said, however, that the message was not intended as malicious and the group hopes people can see the humor in it.

More than anything, that message and comment -- coming from what was Kramer's hometown and original base of power -- say volumes about the tone of debate being waged here. Each side has a lot at stake and each is intent on getting its point across. And with the public hearing and council debate still upcoming, as Leggett said, "it's going to get worse before it gets better." Wheaton Bus Ban Fallout

Robert S. McGarry, Montgomery's blunt-speaking transportation director who was noticeably absent last week when County Executive Sidney Kramer said a misunderstanding caused the bus-banning controversy at Wheaton Plaza, was making jokes about the incident this week.

Yes, he really was out of town at his daughter's wedding, and wasn't it amazing the way Kramer was able to conjure up a husband on such short notice, he said. Seriously, McGarry said that when he heard Wheaton officials say they did not intend a permanent ban, he leaped at the chance to get the buses back. And, if they wanted to kick him around a bit to save face, that was fine with him.

He only cared about the buses rolling, said McGarry, whose criticism of the plaza prompted an apology by Kramer. One side benefit to all the publicity, McGarry reported, is the possibility of new bus service at Lakeforest Mall.