Although it is one of the lesser-known political races, the Sept. 11 Democratic primary for the clerk of the Montgomery County Circuit Court is shaping up to be a highly competitive contest between a veteran court official and a former law clerk with strong political ties to the county's top prosecutor.

Bettie A. Skelton, appointed last fall by a majority of the Circuit Court judges to fill a vacancy created by the death last summer of Circuit Court Clerk Howard M. Smith, said she wants to be elected to a full four-year term on her merits.

"I have 23 years with the court system," said Skelton, who has been endorsed by a long list of prominent county and state officials and business leaders. "I am familiar with each and every division and its problems. I feel very well qualified for the job."

But her challenger, John Philip Sousa Pugh, is critical of Skelton's brief tenure as the chief operating officer of the highest local court.

"She doesn't understand the total ramifications of the office," said Pugh, 52, who runs a business consulting firm, Professional Connection, from his Garrett Park home. "She may be very knowledgeable about assigning cases, but she has taken on larger responsibilities without the experience."

Pugh said he is better qualified to supervise the $7 million office because of "nine years of courthouse experience, 15 years in banking and five years as an entrepreneur."

The Democratic primary is all important because there is no Republican challenger. In addition, the winner of the primary could have a lock on the post for many years. Smith, who died in July 1989, held the job for nearly 23 years.

Court observers say Skelton will be tough to beat. She has garnered endorsements from County Executive Sidney Kramer, state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, legions of attorneys, the police union and the politically connected Mardirossian family, which owns the "6-12" convenience store chain.

But Pugh also has lined up powerful backers. State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner, who is running unopposed for reelection, is supporting Pugh's candidacy. And Smith's widow, Mary Smith, who withdrew her primary challenge to Skelton less than a month after announcing, also is backing Pugh.

Smith dropped out of the contest in mid-June, citing Skelton's formidable campaign organization and widespread support. Pugh announced his candidacy shortly before the July 2 filing deadline.

In recent weeks, Pugh's candidacy has generated some controversy. The executive committee of the county Bar Association endorsed Skelton by a 7 to 6 vote last month, but Pugh criticized the Bar's action, saying he had not been interviewed nor his candidacy considered before the vote.

Last week, Pugh distributed a news release saying the Bar had rescinded its endorsement of Skelton. Bar President A. Harold Metro called the release "absolutely inaccurate." Monday night, the Bar Association reaffirmed its endorsement of Skelton, Metro said.

Skelton, 55, has been employed with the Circuit Court system since 1968, when she was appointed deputy assignment commissioner responsible for scheduling trials and coordinating civil and criminal cases. Four years later, Skelton was promoted to assignment commissioner, a post she held for 17 1/2 years before her selection as acting Circuit Court clerk.

Pugh, citing his business and legal background, said he wants to establish an "open-door" management policy for the clerk's nearly 200-member staff.

Pugh is the son of a former Montgomery County Circuit Court judge and is a graduate of the University of Baltimore law school, although he never practiced law. He worked for nine years as a law clerk and bailiff at the Rockville courthouse. He was employed for 15 years as a senior officer at Riggs National Bank before starting his own business.

Pugh, who claims there are "serious morale problems" in Skelton's staff, said he wants to try some innovative concepts, such as flexible work schedules, late evening or Saturday office hours and more liberal child-care options.

He also has charged Skelton with being "unresponsive and insensitive" to minorities. Pugh said he wants to make the courthouse more accessible to residents who don't speak English and establish a TDD phone service for the hearing-impaired.

Skelton denies Pugh's charges about the staff, saying she has tried to improve working conditions and salaries in the office. "I've worked with Annapolis legislators for changes," she said.

As the incumbent, Skelton said the major goals of her campaign are increased automation and streamlined service. "It's like a clothes closet," she said. "There are a lot of things to be updated."

Skelton said she is committed to staff diversity, adding that she has hired five or six new minority employees since her appointment. In addition, Skelton said she supports the TDD program, but "budget constraints prevent me from filling each need as fast as we want."