The GOP primary election for the 5th Congressional District, which pits perennial candidate John Eugene Sellner against newcomer Gregory K. Washington, in many ways is symbolic of the party's scramble for legitimacy in a county in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1.

Sellner has run for election five times since 1981 -- he withdrew as a candidate for sheriff in 1986 and ran for Congress instead. He spent very little money in the previous contests and expects to spend less than a couple of hundred dollars this year even if he wins the March 8 primary and goes on to challenge four-term Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer. Hoyer, who faces no challengers in the primary, had raised $270,970 as of Dec. 1.

Washington is an example of the young blacks whom Republican activists said the party must attract if it is to gain parity with the Democrats.

At 35, Washington is chairman of the Republican Black Council and operates the Washington Minority Business Development Center, a business assistance program partially funded by the U.S. Commerce Department. He is a member of the Republican National Committee on Minority and Ethnic Participation in the Party. In 1986, Washington lost a bid for a state Senate seat to Democrat Albert R. Wynn.

A strong supporter of mandatory set-aside programs, he spoke out for Prince George's County Council support of a local bill that would restrict 30 percent of all county government contracts for minority businesses, a key demand of the black business and political leadership in the county.

"For the first time, blacks {in Prince George's} are interested in the Republican message," said Jim House, second vice chairman of the Maryland Republican Party and a Washington supporter. "Blacks are interested in economic development. Gregory is a CPA. He has been dealing with business development."

"It's not a conscious strategy to run a black candidate," said Gerard F. Holcomb, former member of the county Republican Party Central Committee.

Said Washington, "In Prince George's, we are talking to the black leadership and young people about what the party stands for. What do blacks get from the Democratic Party? Black folks as a people have to demand something for their vote."

Washington, a former Democrat who switched parties in 1976, estimates he will spend $5,000 on the primary race in his effort to advertise his campaign theme that the 5th District, which encompasses most of the county, needs a leader who has "vision" and is willing to "fight for American values." He said he would like to be in office eight to 10 years, then return to private business rather than become a professional politician, an obvious reference to Hoyer, who politicians have said is maneuvering to be speaker of the House.

Washington proposes to reduce the federal deficit by cuts in spending on military and social programs. He would favor cutting the budget for strategic weapons, while boosting spending on conventional weapons and manpower. He said he believes that a return to the military draft also might be necessary.

He argues that the Aid To Families With Dependent Children welfare program should be converted to "workfare," in which recipients are given jobs in exchange for aid. The program would be coupled with a national day care system. He would also work to trim what he calls the fat from pork barrel budgets, such as the federal highway and clean-water bills.

"I don't think spending money is necessarily the solution," Washington said. "We've thrown money at the poverty {problem} for 20 years, but the poverty level keeps growing."

Washington is a native of Florida and a graduate of Florida State University, and has lived in the county for 12 years. He and his wife, Bonita, live in Forestville.

Few people in Prince George's County have as much experience running for office as Sellner. In 1980, he ran as a Democrat for Congress in the 4th District, which includes part of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. The next year he ran against Hoyer as a Democrat in the special election for the congressional seat in the 5th District. In 1982, he ran for the County Council.

In 1984 and 1986, he again ran for the 5th District congressional seat as a Republican.

Sellner has a simple message: He wants to "get in there in Washington and straighten out and change some things." He switched to the Republican Party, he said, because he was disillusioned with the Democrats. He also criticizes the GOP for not having "effective leadership to thrash out issues and expose the old boys in the Democratic Party."

"We need a real good house cleaning," Sellner said.

A county resident for 55 years, Sellner served in the military and retired from the county police force after 22 years. He sells real estate, has acted as a "bounty hunter" against persons who make false claims against the federal government, and runs an independent car dealership. He and his wife, Nancy, live in Fort Washington.

Sellner has two concerns. He wants to clear the landscape of abandoned cars by creating an automobile deposit that would work much like a bottle deposit. Under the program, a charge would be included in the price of a new car and would be passed on to each new owner of that car. The last owner would be refunded the money when it is taken to a scrapyard.

Sellner also proposes cracking down on the illegal drug trade by offering substantial awards -- $25,000 to $50,000 -- to people who give information that leads to the arrest and conviction of drug dealers. The money would come from a fund made up of cash and other assets seized in raids against drug dealers.