When Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo wades into the roiling waters of the growth debate, her cautious, deliberate and sometimes unpredictable actions leave many on both sides wondering where she stands.

She would like people to think it is somewhere in the middle.

"I refuse to stereotype the members of the development community as bad people. It's just not true," Bobo said. "My job is to regulate them."

With growth emerging as Howard's politically hot topic in this election year, the 46-year-old Bobo, a Democrat, is seeking a second term by planting herself firmly in the middle on an issue that usually provokes fiercely divergent opinions.

"Bobo has tried to take the growth issue and use it to her advantage. Her opponents, on the other hand, will try to keep her from getting away with it," said Brad Coker, a Howard County pollster.

By focusing the county executive's race on Bobo and her growth policies, the one other Democrat and two Republicans vying for her seat are trying to capitalize on concerns about development that have sent political tremors throughout the Washington region.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Audrey Moore has become ensnared in divisive struggles trying to fulfill her campaign promise of bringing growth under control. Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer has suddenly found himself facing an eleventh-hour challenge from anti-growth candidate Neal Potter, a respected 20-year County Council member.

In Howard, concerns about development take on a particular urgency. Nestled between Baltimore and Washington, it is one of the newest frontiers in the march of development, an appealing target to builders hungry to develop the still-rural western section of the county.

Like its neighbors closer to Washington, the county of about 176,000 residents is trying to cope with a growing problem of crowded schools and too much traffic.

Bobo says she has succeeded in placing reasonable limits on development, and she thinks her actions put her in a strong position to be reelected. In 3 1/2 years, she has pushed through legislation to limit construction in wetlands and on steep slopes, found ways to preserve more farmland and imposed a temporary cap on the number of building permits issued.

And before her first term is up, Bobo has promised to introduce a new measure allowing development only in places where adequate roads and schools exist.

Her critics say Bobo's accomplishments may sound good on paper, but in practice lack teeth and will do little to deter development. All three of her challengers are pinning their Election Day hopes on convincing voters of this distinction.

Bobo enters the race a favorite because of certain advantages: a strong political organization and a proven ability to raise money, about a quarter of it from developers. But by playing the middle, Bobo has embittered many in the opposing camps.

Thomas Hartman, who is running against Bobo in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, said Bobo's growth controls have gone too far and will damage the economic health of the county.

On the other side are Republican challengers Gilbert E. South and Charles Ecker. They argue that Bobo's attempts to control growth are so full of loopholes as to be meaningless. The measures are at best a reflection of Bobo's poor ability to legislate, they say. At worst, Bobo has deftly crafted her bills to provide the illusion of action while actually giving developers a break, they contend.

With Democrats and Republicans taking Bobo to task for her growth record, development appears to be an issue that transcends party politics. But unlike past contests, this year's campaign "won't be a black and white, pro- versus anti-development race. There's going to be a lot of grays" because Bobo will make the case that her actions already are bringing growth under control, said pollster Coker.

For instance, Bobo was widely applauded by slow-growth advocates for outlawing development on steep slopes and near streams. But many of those same activists felt double-crossed when she unveiled a revised 20-year growth blueprint that did not go as far as they would have liked in restricting growth in the rural west.

Bobo said she's not surprised her record is drawing attacks.

"I knew it would happen," she said. "We are the ones who put the issue out there. I knew in doing that . . . there would be people who would say you haven't done enough. And there are."

But Bobo said the net effect of her actions will "unquestionably" be less development.

"Some of the extremists are saying Howard County is in horrible shape. They say we are not doing what Prince George's or Montgomery are doing {to curb development}," she said. "But once you cross the county line, all you have to do is use your eyes, use your ears. We're in much better shape right now, not because I'm a better county executive than those guys {in Montgomery and Prince George's}, but because we have options left to us that those guys don't have."

Nevertheless, Bobo's critics contend her legislative accomplishments are generally flawed.

From Hartman's perspective, the measures have been shortsighted. Limiting development will only drive up the cost of what can be built and make it increasingly difficult for people to afford to live in the county.

"That's good for middle-class people like me, who are already here. But there's no chance my children can live in Howard County once they set out," said Hartman, an executive with a high-tech firm.

He questions why the county spends so much money preserving farmland -- payments he calls "conscience money" -- when that way of life is destined to be a part of the county's past.

Bobo "doesn't do what's right. She does what's politically expedient," Hartman said.

South, a local businessman, and Ecker, a former school administrator, join the chorus that Bobo has pursued her political goals at the expense of sound policy; her challengers think that she is pinning hopes for higher office on her handling of the growth issue. But unlike Hartman, both Republicans say the county executive has not gone far enough in regulating development.

They point to Bobo's bill to cap the number of building permits issued, and contend that it had the opposite effect of what was intended. Seeing that the bill was about to pass, builders rushed to get as many permits as they could. As a result, the county issued more than 5,300 permits last year, instead of a more typical 4,000.

South cites other concerns. He said Bobo has talked a lot about controlling growth, but the newly adopted General Plan would actually increase the amount of construction allowed over the plan now in place.

"What gives here? Who is she really representing?" South asked.

Bobo discounts complaints that builders got around her growth cap bill by obtaining the permits before the law went into effect. She said many of the permits obtained during the 11th hour will go unused. And besides, she said, builders will be able to obtain only about 3,000 permits through the entire 18-month period.

If people think she's putting her political interests first, so be it. "I'm political and proud of it," Bobo said.

Bobo also rejects the idea that this election is simply a referendum on her growth policies. In addition to her slow-growth initiatives, she said she has pushed for expanded recycling efforts, brought new attention to the arts, and improved the working relationship between the county executive and state and local legislators.

"I don't feel the need to be vindicated. I'm never going to have everyone happy with me, that's simply impossible," Bobo said. "I see the election as simply a way to spend another four years in office."