In 1967, Democrat Paul B. Ebert spent $5,000 and shook a few hands to become the youngest commonwealth's attorney in the history of Virginia and Prince William County, then a largely rural area just beginning to take on the trappings of full-blown suburbia.

This year, the man whom longtime county residents consider a courtroom institution plans to spend $50,000 to $70,000 -- much of it for cable television advertising and 2,000 posters blanketing the county -- in his bid for a sixth four-year term.

The higher cost is a sign that expensive politics have come to Prince William County just as sure as its barns and fields have given way to street after street of two-story colonials.

The county's population has more than tripled since 1960, to the 200,000 mark today, as young couples and families, attracted by affordable housing, have flocked in.

Ebert's Republican opponent, Peter W. Steketee, a partner in the Manassas law firm of Smith & Davenport, is making his first bid for elective office and says he plans to spend $15,000 on his campaign, which is more than many candidates for the Board of County Supervisors are spending.

The Ebert-Steketee race is the only countywide election on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Steketee acknowledges that his own party's polls, which he refused to release, showed him trailing.

However, he said, the undecided vote is larger than the combined percentages for him and Ebert, and he hopes to persuade many of those undecided voters to cast their ballots for him.

More than half of the 65,000 voters have registered since 1983, which means they are voting in a county election for the first time. The total number of voters has grown by 20,000 since that time.

County police jokingly say the members of this new electorate cannot find their way home from the office if they have to deviate from their normal paths.

Steketee tells potential voters that Ebert is not sufficiently involved in the community and that he drops too many cases.

Steketee also suggests that the incumbent has not kept up with the changing times and the sophisticated needs of his growing middle-class constituency.

Ebert points to a decreasing crime rate in the county and his years of experience in dealing with its judicial system and his automated case management system.

The cost of the campaign has become something of an issue.

Steketee calls Ebert's spending "absurd" and said he will rely on his more modest war chest and door-to-door campaigning in hopes of winning.

In evaluating the style and content of Ebert, 50, and Steketee, 44, for the $83,000-a-year post, the voters have a clear choice.

Both are longtime county residents, however. Ebert has lived in Prince William for 22 years, Steketee for 17.

"I'm more of a country-boy type than he is," Ebert said. "He is more of a smoothie."

Steketee, who with his crisp shirts and polished speaking style resembles a college dean, portrays Ebert as a man entrenched in his ways and one who "has lost a step."

Ebert, who speaks with the drawl of his native Roanoke, has described his opponent as "naive" about the prosecutor's role and is running hard on the record that Steketee is challenging.

If every voter knew of his accomplishments as head of the 10-lawyer prosecutor's office, "I wouldn't spend a nickel" on the campaign, Ebert said.

He also said: "I'm not sure I like merchandising myself, but I'm not naive enough to think that every voter will know me."

Prince William was the only Northern Virginia locality last year to show a decrease in its crime rate, Ebert has noted with pride, attributing the decline in part to his reputation as an aggressive prosecutor and someone who will tackle difficult cases.

Last year, his office tried approximately 1,300 cases.

In his campaign literature, Ebert, a graduate of George Washington University law school, notes his role in a "landmark case" last October in which a Dale City man was convicted of the aggravated sexual battery of the man's 14-year-old adopted daughter. Ebert based the prosecution largely on the girl's diary and statements she made to a friend shortly before committing suicide.

Ebert also touts a manslaughter conviction he obtained in the disappearance of a County police jokingly say the members of this new electorate cannot find their way home from the office if they have to deviate from their normal paths.

youth whose body has never been found.

In addition, Ebert has categorized the prosecutor's office as progressive, pointing to its automated case management, proposed counseling for crime victims and witnesses, and a crime prevention program that includes surveillance of repeat and serious offenders.

Ebert's most recurring campaign theme has been his experience, which he says includes knowing when to try cases and how judges will react to certain tactics. He also says his experience allows him to use discretion in prosecuting the law -- for example, by using a small-time drug dealer as an informer on larger operations rather than prosecuting him.

Steketee, a former county planning commissioner and chairman of the local GOP, said Ebert has taken discretionary power too far and believes that "he is the law."

Consequently, the GOP candidate said, the prosecutor's office is dropping too many cases before trial. Last year, Steketee said, the county dropped 18 percent of its cases, compared with 6.8 percent in Fairfax County.

Ebert maintains that the dismissal rate for his office, which also prosecutes felony cases for the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park, is closer to the statewide average than Fairfax's rate.

Steketee, an Indiana University law school graduate, said the dropped cases indicate that the incumbent has become complacent and lost the desire to be innovative. As an example, Steketee said, "it is inexcusable that the commonwealth's attorney's office {in Manassas, in western Prince William} does not regularly make a prosecutor available on the eastern side of the county."

Steketee, who prosecutes traffic and misdemeanor cases for the City of Manassas through a contract with his law firm, also said Ebert should be doing more to prevent crime. For example, Steketee said, the commonwealth's attorney should address the issue of latchkey children, whom he sees as potential crime victims, by taking an active role in promoting day care.

Steketee, a native of Eau Claire, Wis., also envisions the county's chief prosecutor working more within the community, instead of just making "cameo courtroom appearances."

Prince William has grown "more sophisticated, and I don't think the office has changed the way that it should," Steketee said.

"I haven't gone out and said to this new group of voters 'I'm your man,' but I think that they can ascertain that from what I have said," Steketee said.

"He has made the statement that I have burned out," Ebert said. "Well, if you use that for a criteria, I'd say that he has never and never will catch on fire. So he doesn't have to worry about burning out."