Many Rockville residents associate their mayor with his attention-grabbing run down Rockville Pike during the campaign two years ago. In a well-publicized race against rush-hour traffic, underdog candidate Steven Van Grack displayed both athletic prowess and a good measure of political savvy.

Now, as mayor and front-runner, Van Grack is still running on Rockville Pike.

After nearly two years in office, his last campaign's promises to solve gridlock and control growth are on the line.

Van Grack says development can be controlled through a plan he supports and hopes to have the council approve before the Nov. 3 election. He insists that the plan -- drawn up by the city's Planning Commission -- will help limit growth on Rockville Pike.

Van Grack's reelection bid is being challenged by Douglas Duncan, a City Council member eager to portray the mayor as the pro-development candidate. Duncan said the new plan is "too soft." Van Grack dismisses Duncan's allegations as "nonsense."

Both candidates said Van Grack's ability to toughen the current draft of the plan and to persuade council members to approve it in the next eight weeks is becoming central to the mayor's reelection campaign.

Just as development played a key role in last year's campaign for Montgomery County executive, the perceived strength with which the Rockville mayoral candidates tackle the growth issue could help decide what is already becoming a bitter contest. Rockville Pike is emerging as a testing ground for the candidates' claims.

"There's no question it's a key issue," Van Grack said. "I intend to push for these controls and have them in stone as soon as I can. We have to keep the Pike attractive for retail, but manageable for our residents."

Duncan said, "Sure, it's always going to be retail-oriented, but the mayor has not shown a commitment to getting control of the pike . . . . This plan does not set all the limits necessary."

The plan -- a 20-year program for development of Maryland's most lucrative retail strip -- outlines new limits on building height and floor space. It also sets up a complex bargaining system that allows developers to exceed certain density limits in exchange for public improvements.

Under the plan, building height limits would be 20 stories for residential towers and 11 stories for mixed-use commercial and residential buildings.

In addition, the plan calls for the construction of roads parallel to the pike -- extensions of East Jefferson Street and Chapman Avenue -- to help ease congestion. If the plan is approved, this road construction is generally considered to be among the first changes likely to take place in the pike area. Van Grack and Duncan said they support the parallel roads proposal.

Planning Commission Chairman Richard Arkin said that the plan generally would limit buildings to one-sixth the size currently allowed. He added, however, that the plan also would allow a developer to construct buildings up to one-third larger than is currently permitted if the developer agrees to provide certain amenities, which could range from park benches and plazas to pedestrian bridges and day care centers.

But he stressed that despite this option, city officials will have a much stronger hand in controlling development under the plan. As an example, he pointed to the current zoning, which automatically allows a developer to build a 200,000-square-foot structure on a 100,000-square-foot lot. Under the new plan, the building would be limited to 35,000 square feet unless the developer bargained with city officials to get more space.

"No question that this will reduce growth, control it and make the pike more attractive," Arkin said. "The developer will have to come up with something of the size to be economically feasible, yet attractive and useful enough to meet the new city standards. I am very pleased."

Still, the potential for buildings to be one-third larger than current zoning allows has both candidates disturbed.

"It is a public relations problem," Van Grack said. "Frankly, it looks bad to the people who wanted us to do something . . . no matter what the improvements."

Van Grack said he expects to ask for a "slight reduction" in the building size limits because "even if it is not feasible for the developer, the public will fear it."

Duncan, who said he favors more intensive development at the Town Center area rather than on Rockville Pike, said he will not support the plan "without major changes." He also wants the building size limits cut in the plan. He said the "density of the pike would not be helped enough" under the plan.

Duncan also alleged that Van Grack's support of a federal study for transportation systems for the pike, including a monorail, indicates that the mayor is inclined to support a higher density in the area because only more intensive development would support a monorail. Van Grack denies the allegation and said he does not want a monorail, but that it is just one provision of a responsible study.

Arkin, chairman of the seven-member volunteer commission, said the commission probably will complete work on the plan within a week to 10 days. He said it is conceivable that the plan could be on the council's agenda by end of the month.

Since 1982, groups of citizen and professional city planners have been grappling with the Rockville Pike issue. But, Arkin said, after five years and "thousands and thousands of volunteer hours and public hearings, it is ironic that the issue could be decided in the next few weeks."

Even the candidates called the timing of the pike decision "interesting."

Van Grack and Duncan each has accused the other of delaying action on the plan. Van Grack said Duncan's call for new public hearings once the plan reaches the council -- hearings in addition to those already held by the Planning Commission -- "is an attempt to delay final action. We've waited long enough. No further hearings are required by law, so let's get on with it."

Duncan said more public hearings "are essential because the council should now be going over these plans carefully with public input. You can't say we've heard too much from the public. This is too important."