No matter how much the Democratic primary candidates in the District 17 state House and Senate races try to steer voters' minds to other subjects, the campaign inevitably seems to be dominated by one issue: abortion.

"It's the first question people ask when I'm campaigning," said Kumar Barve, a contract administrator, who at 31 is the youngest candidate in the crowded field of seven Democrats vying for three House seats.

"The number of times I'm asked my position on choice versus other issues is 20 to 1," said former Montgomery County government lobbyist Susan R. Hoffmann, 46, also a candidate in the House race.

The focus on abortion in the House race appears to be a spillover from the more publicized state Senate race, in which Democratic incumbent S. Frank Shore, an antiabortion supporter, is locked in a tough battle with Mary Boergers, an abortion-rights backer who gave up her District 17 House seat to challenge Shore.

The abortion issue dominated the General Assembly this year, resulting in an eight-day filibuster in the Senate and a House committee vote to kill two conflicting proposals. The Shore-Boergers race has become a litmus test locally for the opposing sides on the emotional issue.

Boergers, a former history teacher, said the intensity of the abortion issue among voters "startled" her. "More pro-choice voters are willing to make a bottom-line decision," said Boergers, 44. "Unless you fight fire with fire, a minority can determine what the laws in the state will be."

But Shore, a former delegate and a senator since 1978, discounted the abortion issue as a major factor in the race for the Sept. 11 primary. "We don't get that many questions about it," said Shore, 54. "That's not one of the top four issues at all."

Crime and drugs are the main issues on constituents' minds, said Shore, an unorthodox legislator known for his crusades, such as wearing a seat belt throughout a session to stress the need for laws requiring seat belt use in cars. Voters also want "truth in sentencing" for convicted criminals, he added, and tougher restrictions on political action committees.

Boergers, whose latest campaign finance report shows $83,309 in contributions compared with about $21,000 for Shore, said District 17 "needs someone there {in the Senate} to vote . . . work hard and be respected by their colleagues." Contending that Shore has a poor attendance and voting record, Boergers said Montgomery County faces tough sledding "at the state level to maintain equity in taxes and maintain its share of state funding."

Shore countered that he is an active legislator and that he missed some of those votes because he was at other legislative meetings with more priority.

The winner of the Democratic Senate primary will face Republican William J. Skinner in the Nov. 6 general election.

With so much attention on abortion, candidates for the House of Delegates worry that the race is becoming a single-issue campaign in District 17, which includes Rockville, Gaithersburg, Garrett Park and parts of Bethesda and Kensington.

"It would appear many people will be voting for or against candidates solely on the basis of that issue," said candidate Luiz R.S. Simmons, 41, a former state delegate. "People feel very passionate about it."

Peter R. Hartogensis, a former Rockville City Council member, said the abortion question "comes up three times as much as other issues. It's the number one issue."

Of the seven Democratic House candidates, six are abortion-rights supporters, while one, Robert A. Jacques, a former delegate, describes himself as "a sort of a modified pro-life candidate." Jacques, 52, said he supports abortions only in the first trimester and in cases of rape, incest, or when the fetus or the mother's life is threatened.

Jacques, an assistant county attorney who scrupulously avoids campaigning on county time, concedes his "purely personal" position on abortion probably will cost him the election. "I don't think I can do it as long as people are in a white-hot fever about abortion," he said.

Outside the abortion question, however, there is a wide range of issues and backgrounds among the House candidates.

The two incumbents in the District 17 race are Jennie M. Forehand, a 12-year veteran, and lawyer Michael Gordon, 43, who is seeking a third term. While some political observers believe the incumbents' seats are safe, Forehand said she and Gordon are not taking any chances.

"The other candidates say they are shooting for the vacant seat of Boergers," said Forehand. "But Mike and I are campaigning as if it's a free-for-all. Only the top three get the nod."

The top three vote-getters in the Democratic primary will advance to the fall general election. In November, the Democratic challengers will face off against Republicans David S. Green and Torin K. Andrews.

A former journalist, Forehand, 54, said seniority in the state legislature will be crucial to ensure that Montgomery County gets its "fair share" of state money for schools, roads and social services. "Challengers don't know how the {state} budget is put together," she said.

With shrinking state funding, experienced legislators will play a greater role in key fiscal and tax policy issues in the 1991 legislature, said Gordon, a lawyer. "There are other solutions besides robbing Paul to pay Peter."

But Barve said voters may be ready for some new political faces. "There is a sentiment for new perspectives in the General Assembly," he said. "There is a desire for someone new and fresh."

Barve, who said he's been active in local politics for 16 years, believes his financial background in government contracting gives him a competitive edge. "If Montgomery County experiences an economic slowdown, local government must choose between services and higher taxes. What happens in Annapolis has direct impact on what happens in Rockville."

Hartogensis, 46, a lawyer, said the state's "antiquated" property assessment system needs to be overhauled. Previously, the three-year assessment cycle was necessary because of staffing shortages, he said. "But now that there are computers, we have the technology to reassess all property simultaneously and fairly."

Hoffman, who managed County Executive Sidney Kramer's 1986 campaign and was a county lobbyist for four years in Annapolis, said her familiarity with the legislative process gives her a head start in political networking. "When I get there, I don't need to learn the people or the feel of the legislature," she said. "I will know who to go to right away. I have the skills to reach out and make things happen."

Jacques, who was defeated for the House seat by Forehand in 1978, said he wants to prevent the state from trying to grab a share of the "piggyback" tax that is reserved for local jurisdictions. "It's a local tax imposed at a county's option, ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent," he said.

Jacques also criticized excessive government spending, calling Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to build a new baseball stadium for the Baltimore Orioles "absolutely goofy."

Simmons, a lawyer who served as a Republican delegate and later switched political parties after losing the 1982 county executive race, said consumer advocacy and transportation issues will be pivotal in the state legislature. Citing the insurance lobby, Simmons said, "I feel it's important today to look at large interest groups that are very powerful." On transportation, Simmons said, "Montgomery for years has not been able to receive an adequate amount of transportation money to expand and do repairs on its roads."

Enacting tougher environmental controls was a concern of several candidates. Hartogensis and Barve said the state should push for increased recycling incentives. Those two candidates, along with Hoffmann and Gordon, also urged stronger protections for Chesapeake Bay.

The costs of running for office have escalated steeply, candidates said. While Forehand said she hopes to spend a total of about $10,000 for both the primary and general election, several candidates, including Simmons and Barve, said they expect to spend double or triple that amount. Jacques said he plans to spend only about $4,000.

The candidates, for the most part, have remained independent of other local candidates or political slates. However, Hoffmann has been endorsed by Kramer, who also is the honorary chairman of her campaign.

Some political observers and candidates are predicting that the race will hinge on name recognition; others say that political connections will carry the primary. But the large number of candidates makes handicapping of the race difficult.

"It will hinge heavily on who runs the best campaign in the final two weeks," Barve said. "It's a wide-open race."