In Charles County, the campaign buzzword is growth.

Population has doubled during the past 20 years and continues increasing at a rate of nearly 5 percent a year.

Commercial expansion in the county has boomed -- including the recently opened 1.1 million-square-foot St. Charles Towne Center on Route 301.

Traffic in the county has almost tripled, choking town roads and causing government officials to scramble for alternative routes and means of transportation.

And, in an effort to better manage this growth, the county's Board of Commissioners will take its first step toward expanding from three to five members with the Sept. 11 primary.

"There is no stopping growth in Charles County," said board member Murray Levy, who is running for reelection. "The question becomes controlling it and managing it. This {expansion} will help us in this endeavor by representing more of a majority viewpoint."

Also for the first time, commissioners in Charles County will be required to run from one of four newly created districts. A fifth member of the board, its president, can reside anywhere in the county. Commissioners, however, still will be voted on in an at-large fashion, with county residents voting for representatives from all districts.

The candidates are:

Incumbent Levy, 44, who owns a market, and Eleanor Carrico, 69, a former member of the board, who are seeking the Democratic nomination in District 1, the area including La Plata, Cobb Island, Benedict and Bryantown. The primary is the deciding contest in this district because no Republican filed for the seat.

Democrats Arthur Lee and Dale Speake and Republican Gerald Schuster in District 2, the westernmost section of the county that includes Bryans Road, Nanjemoy and the Indian Head area. Lee, 47, is a supermarket clerk and freelance writer, and Speake, 50, owns a convenience and liquor store. The winner of that contest will face Schuster, 59, an orthopedic surgeon, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Democrat Marlan Deen, 55, a former commissioner who owns a store in the county, and Republican incumbent Nancy Sefton, 47, a former member of the school board. Neither faces a primary challenge in District 3. They are already playing out a tough general election campaign, however, in the area that includes Waldorf and the area near St. Charles.

Three Democrats seeking their party's nomination in District 4, John Acton, Bob Fuller and Leo Smith. Two Republicans, David Barletta, 35, an automobile salesman, and Brenda Beard, 43, who does not work outside the home, are vying for the GOP nomination in the district that includes St. Charles.

Acton, 36, manages neighborhood associations and condominiums; Fuller, 47, is a member of the board of education; and Smith, 71, is retired from NASA, where he worked as an assistant chief of the management services division.

Thomas "Mac" Middleton, 44, the incumbent commission president and owner of a farm, is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Alex Winter, 43, a former teacher and freelance writer. The winner of that race will face Republican Jo Ann Ptack in the general election.

The changes in the commission size and election procedures, mandated by a 1988 charter referendum, are an effort to give a stronger voice to underrepresented areas of the county and to make the form of government stronger, officials and residents say.

While creating two new board positions, the new electoral process has also brought to the forefront growth and its impact on different facets of life in the county, including education, transportation and development.

"Twenty years ago, we had a movie theater, a boys and girls club, a skating rink and a bowling alley. It's all disappeared because of development," said candidate Lee, from District 2. "People in the area do not want growth. They want to see it remain rural."

In District 4, the southern part of the county, the move is also to keep the area's rural aesthetics intact.

"We're heading in the position of rampant development. The faster we grow, the faster people can lose their lands to roads. We don't want the Rockville-ization of Charles County," Beard said. "We want to prevent that."

The other candidates in District 4 -- both Democrats and Republicans -- have all spoken for curbing development to keep the county's rural flavor alive.

Related to the question of growth is the proposal to build the Eastern Bypass for the Capital Beltway, which could affect Charles County. The proposal, which would be funded by the state and federal government and which proponents say would alleviate traffic along the county's bottlenecked roads by channeling traffic around the Waldorf area, has stirred a great deal of controversy, and politicians are playing on that theme. District 3 Democrat Deen, who served 34 days in prison for operating a video poker machine in his store, advocates the plan, saying the road could serve well as a bargaining chip in future government-backed projects.

"This is something the state and federal governments are anxious about. We should be able to leverage that to our advantage," Deen said. "If we don't seize this opportunity, they will take their money and address someone else's problems."

Opponents of the bypass, of which Sefton is one, say it would destroy homes and may actually exacerbate the traffic problem, depending on the number of exits in the county.

Winter, who is seeking the commission presidency, calls the bypass nothing more than a "developers' corridor" and said it would destroy another part of the county's ecology.

"Economic development will take over the county and destroy our forests," Winter said. "We have to realize that nature is precious and we have to preserve our forests."

His opponent in the primary, Middleton, has not taken a stand on the road issue, saying he is seeking more information on it.

"This is one of the most significant issues the county has to deal with. It is not something you take lightly," Middleton said. "Additional studies have to be done on it. I won't endorse it or oppose it for the same reason."

While the board's expansion may bring more representation, some candidates complain it has also created confusion.

"It's a new system and people are quite confused," said incumbent Sefton. "They are used to going in and voting for three commissioners. They just don't know what's going on now."

Levy, along with others, also expressed concern about the new political system. While many view it as a move with many positives, Levy said it has its drawbacks, including higher cost to the taxpayer and being more time-consuming.

"A negative here is that five people take longer than three people to decide on something," Levy said. "The larger the body making those decisions, the longer it takes to come to those decisions."

Sefton said the system, which divided the county into district by population and geography to apportion more representation, misses one of its primary purposes.

"It doesn't do what I think some people thought it would," Sefton said. "Some areas thought they would have a commissioner from their area. But the areas are so large that it just won't work out that way."