There are lawn signs, bumper stickers and buttons. The candidates make the rounds of coffees, forums and Metro station campaign stops. Endorsements are made and fund-raisers held.

But the elements that could turn this Democratic congressional primary from just an election into a race -- controversy, suspense and speculation -- are lacking from the final stretch before the March 8 Maryland voting.

Peter Franchot, a freshman state legislator from Takoma Park, is seen by most Montgomery politicians as the favorite to win the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella in Maryland's 8th Congressional District.

Franchot faces four opponents in the primary: Rosemary Glynn, Ralph Shur, George Benns and James Walker Jr. None of the four has held elective office or shown great financial or organizational strength.

"What race?" was the queried comment this week of one Democrat activist, who noted that the most important developments in the primary happened in the early weeks of the campaign for the seat to represent the eastern half of Montgomery County.

With the primary in March, people thinking about running against Morella had to decide by Dec. 28, more than 10 months before the general election this November.

A popular incumbent in her first term, Morella is unopposed in the Republican primary and is seen as a formidable opponent even though voter registration in the district is 2-to-1 Democratic.

Those perceived as the heavy hitters of the local Democratic Party -- former representative Michael D. Barnes, state Del. Nancy Kopp and veteran County Council member Rose Crenca -- declined to run and Franchot was seen as having a clear shot at getting the nomination.

But County Council member Michael L. Gudis surprised everyone by announcing his candidacy at the last moment and quickly gathered the endorsements of much of the county's Democratic political establishment to become a favorite against Franchot.

Gudis aborted his candidacy two weeks later after a disappointing performance at a candidates forum.

Montgomery Democratic leaders, who say they would dearly love to win back the 8th District seat, closed ranks behind Franchot, again making him a favorite in next month's primary. His endorsements run to four typed pages.

"I am campaigning very hard and taking nothing for granted," said the 40-year-old Franchot, whose days are a mix of early mornings at Metro stations, a whirl of fund-raising events and phone calls while still being careful not to ignore his duties in the General Assembly session in Annapolis.

Franchot, formerly chief of staff for Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), has had to fight an image of an overly ambitious politician, new to Montgomery County and its politics.

He surprised the political establishment in 1986 to win the District 20 seat in the House of Delegates in an upset of three candidates endorsed by the countywide Democratic incumbents' slate.

The hallmark of that effort and what Democrats see as his strength is his ability to mount a spirited grass-roots campaign that also makes use of sophisticated direct mail.

Franchot points to his experience on Capitol Hill, and his whole campaign has been to look beyond the primary to Morella and her record. He said that Morella has voted "totally at odds with the views of the voters of this county."

Even some political activists who were originally cool to Franchot's candidacy say they have been impressed with his grasp of the issues. He is sounding a theme that looks to what the nation will be like when today's children are grown. "Will your children be better off than you are?" he asks.

Also running is Rosemary Glynn, a personable campaigner who has run an active campaign. Glynn, a Bethesda lawyer who worked in the antitrust division of the Justice Department, has been handicapped by a lack of funds and her late entry into the primary.

Nonetheless, she frequently shows up at political coffees and meetings and even went to Franchot's home base in Takoma Park last week to pass out information at the crowded City Council meeting on changes in rental housing laws.

Perhaps her biggest coup was getting the endorsement of former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. The endorsement, announced last week at a Potomac fund-raiser attended by McCarthy, dates to Glynn's involvement 20 years ago as a volunteer in McCarthy's presidential campaigns in Chicago.

Glynn points to her activism in a movement to unseat the political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley in Chicago between 1968 and 1974 as evidence of her knowledge of the political arena and her ability to win.

Glynn sees the issues of the race focusing on the economy and the allocation of federal resources.

"The infrastructure and social fabric of this nation is crumbling at an alarming rate," she said. "I saw this in Brooklyn and I have seen it in Montgomery County." She said that her work in the Justice Department showed her "firsthand the difficulties of working under a Republican administration that is hostile to and weakens the established programs and missions of government."

Glynn, 43, says in her campaigning that her positions are not very different from Franchot's, but she stresses frequently that she can more easily defeat Morella because she is a woman and the mother of three children. Because of that factor, she argues, she has the best chance of capturing the constituencies that helped elect Morella in 1986.

Ralph K. Shur, a telemarketer for a publishing company, readily admits his slim chances of winning. He is in the race to focus attention on the concerns and worries of working people, he said.

Shur, 35, has run a very personal campaign -- holding out his experiences as a Germantown resident and father of a 2-year-old. He said he is having a hard time making it financially when he and his wife have a combined income of $45,000. Typical of Shur was his response to a question about the particular concerns of a federal worker, a large constituency in Montgomery.

To be honest, Shur said, he doesn't think federal workers have it so bad and he would even like to get a federal job himself someday. Upper-income leaders, he said, "care about our problems, but they are too far removed to have experienced them. They cannot appreciate the terror of living on the edge."

Intelligence and ideas are what James Walker Jr. sees as his particular strengths in the race. A Bethesda education specialist, Walker proudly describes his academic record -- a 4.0 scholar at the University of Maryland and a member of the Mensa High IQ Society.

Walker, 39, said the issue that got him into the race was Reagan's economic policies, which he said turned the United States into the world's largest debtor nation. He said the problem lies with the erosion of the country's industrial base and points out, "you can't export cheeseburgers."

Walker invokes the Democratic tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy and said their policies made America great and a renewal of those policies "can bring America back."

This is the sixth time George Benns, 76, of Silver Spring has run for Congress. His first run was in 1976 and the reason then is the reason now -- he wants to reform the tax system.

Benns said that workers have been illegally deprived of trillions of dollars in taxes while their standard of living has gone down. Benns, a retired carpenter, passes out a minutely detailed brochure that outlines what he said is a $400 billion tax cut for workers and the middle class.

Benns admits he has little chance of winning but said he has to run because he has never been given a proper forum to outline his solutions to the nation's tax problems. He rails about the candidate forums that allot him, at the most, three minutes to present his views.

His campaign literature promises, "I will also debate anyone in the world that inflation can be stopped, worldwide." According to Benns, "Every time I run for Congress, no one gives me a chance to explain." PHOTOS BY JEFFREY MARKOWITZ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Democratic candidates in the 8th District primary are, from left, George Benns, Peter Franchot, Rosemary Glynn, Ralph Shur and James Walker Jr. All are seeking to face incumbent Constance A. Morella.