In Arlington, where good government is as much a way of life as mowing the lawn on weekends, this year's sheriff's race has prompted a rare display of showmanship and mudslinging.

For three months, civic forums, county board meetings, government offices and the steps to the county courthouse have provided stages for a bickering campaign between two-term incumbent James A. Gondles Jr., a Democrat, and the man who was once his most trusted aide, former chief deputy Ronald B. Hager, the Republican-backed independent.

"Usually we have very honest, very fair races that are usually very low-key," said Anne Noll, president of the nonpartisan Arlington chapter of the League of Women Voters. "This race is very heated and very difficult."

The allegations that have preceded the Nov. 3 election have been serious in nature, attention-grabbing in tone and often inconclusive in substance.Hager accused Gondles of conflict of interest when the sheriff bought $3,000 worth of gym clothes for jail inmates from his father-in-law, who later gave Gondles' campaign a $350 contribution. Gondles said the purchase was Hager's idea. The Arlington commonwealth's attorney, an honorary member of Gondles' campaign committee, ruled out conflict of interest. County Treasurer Frank O'Leary, also an honorary member of Gondles' campaign committee, accused Hager of violating state and county laws by purchasing a truck from a man who bought it at a Sheriff's Department auction. Hager bought the truck, which was valued at $1,312, for $25.

After Hager denied any wrongdoing and refused to turn over the vehicle, O'Leary filed a $25,000 suit against him in Circuit Court. The suit is pending. On the steps of the county courthouse, Gondles held a news conference to announce that his office had been bugged. The listening device, he said, was found under a desk that had belonged to Hager. Hager said he knew nothing about a bug. Gondles authorized a $3,000 purchase order for a medical services study of the county jail by a California company, and he later canceled the order. Hager accused Gondles of having a relationship with a female partner of the firm that went "beyond casual professional conduct."

At a local political forum, Hager distributed copies of a handwritten note to the media that he said documented Gondles' relationship with the woman. Gondles refused to discuss his personal life, and the woman denied the claim. A sexual harassment case was filed in Circuit Court against the sheriff in March by a female deputy. Gondles denied the charges and claimed they were politically motivated. The case has not yet gone to court. Gondles has criticized Hager for copying department documents, before he resigned, for use in his campaign. Gondles said some of those documents were kept in Gondles' locked desk.

Hager acknowledged that he had copied many documents that he has used in the campaign, but he denied having unlocked Gondles' desk or his personal file cabinets. "Any documents I copied, I had access to as chief deputy," Hager said.

Each candidate has blamed the media for moving the campaign away from traditional issues. Hager and Gondles have initiated all the charges listed here.

In this atmosphere, the candidates' professional records have been obscured, they have complained. The voters have taken note of the situation.

Gondles, 40, was elected sheriff in 1979 after eight years in the department. Early in his tenure, he faced considerable criticism over a policy of strip-searching all male and female prisoners booked into the jail. He instituted a new policy in 1980, under which arriving inmates are searched only if correctional officers have reason to believe that they are concealing a weapon.

Gondles was reelected by 186 votes in 1983 when he ran against John E. Baber, a former county policeman.

When he is not defending himself against Hager's volleys, Gondles campaigns on his record. He lists his accomplishments as improved inmate medical services, a well-run inmate library, the jail's continued accreditation by national inspection groups and a work program for inmates.

Gondles created a popular fingerprinting program for children, and his AIDS policies for inmates have been commended as carefully considered and humane by jail administrators and health care workers in the Washington area.

Seen by his peers as a liberal-minded reformer, Gondles has been active in national and regional associations and served as president of the American Jail Association.

Gondles, whose annual salary is $68,275, is waging a part-time campaign with an emphasis on direct mail and door-to-door canvassing. He said last week that he was close to reaching his $30,000 contribution target and that he had received a $250 contribution from the Political Action Committee of Henningson, Durham & Richardson, a California-based architectural firm that designs and builds jails.

He is actively supported by the county's leading Democrats and was the chairman of the Arlington Democratic Committee from 1975 to 1977. His campaign letterhead lists the county's other four constitutional officers and four of the five county board members as part of his "honorary" campaign committee.

A supporting statement by Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney Helen F. Fahey appears prominently on Gondles' main campaign brochure. Hager has said that Fahey's interest in the race and her investigation into various misconduct charges against the two candidates are a conflict of interest. She denies that.

Gondles' detractors, some of whom are former or current employes, say he plays favorites and has a bad temper.

"I may have a temper, but I go up like a rocket and I come down just as fast," Gondles responded.

Hager, 33 and a Democrat-turned-independent, has made integrity in office his main issue. Having worked as the sheriff's chief deputy, he is familiar with the details of the policies he is now criticizing.

Hager has criticized his former boss for moving too quickly in supporting a new, larger jail. Also, he has said the sheriff should lobby local judges to institute alternatives to jail sentences. If elected, Hager said, one of his first priorities would be to fight to increase the number of inmates in work release and other programs that would reduce the inmate population.

Hager has been a member of the Arlington Ridge Civic Association's executive board for two years and is its current vice president. Carol Rademaker, the group's president, said Hager has brought a much-needed understanding of county government and good organizational skills.

"He's an extremely honest person and I respect him," she said. "I consider him an extremely organized, intelligent person {and} caring."

Hager is a member of four law enforcement organizations. In 1982 he won the Arlington Jaycees' Outstanding Young Deputy Sheriff award.

Hager won the endorsement of the GOP but is not well known to party principals. Local party Chairman Scott McGeary did not know Hager before the campaign, and Hager's campaign manager, Kate Welch, vice president of the party, met him in the spring after he decided to run, she said.

"We think he's such a likable person that people automatically like him," said Welch. ". . . He just comes across as very sincere and knowledgeable."

In a separate arrangement, Hager's campaign has paid Welch's company, Welch Communications, at least $1,474.99 to produce campaign materials.

Hager had an annual salary of $49,601 when he left the department in March to run for office. He is currently unemployed.

Hager said last week that he is able to campaign full time while supporting his wife and two children thanks to his savings, about $4,000 in unused vacation and sick leave he received when he resigned, and financial assistance from Minnie Stevens, an 83-year-old Arlington widow. Hager cooks and cleans for Stevens; he also takes care of her finances and has the power of attorney to sign her checks.

In April Stevens donated $4,000 to Hager's campaign, more than one-fourth of the $14,602.79 he had raised as of the most recent reporting deadline, Aug. 15. Hager says he has now raised more than $20,000, and he hopes to raise $30,000 to $35,000 overall.

Detractors have criticized Hager for attending two of Gondles' campaign meetings before he resigned from the Sheriff's Department. Also, they have said that Hager's campaign literature is deceptive.

One of his campaign letters began "Dear Fellow Sheriff's Association Member," even though Hager is no longer a member of the group. Hager said the letter was mailed before he realized that his membership had ended.

In a June 22 campaign mailing, three out of four sentences discussing "professional management" experience are almost word-for-word those used in Gondles' campaign flyers in 1979, 1983 and 1987.

Hager said he did not use any direct quotes from Gondles' materials. "I looked at all of his literature," he said. ". . . There are a lot of similarities."