Montgomery County Council member Michael L. Gudis faces the toughest challenge of his political career from Board of Education member Marilyn Praisner in a Democratic primary contest that is the most bitter this year in the county.

Gudis, seeking his fourth term on the council, and Praisner, who ended a 15-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency to run for the council, are locked in a close and furious race for the District 4 council seat. Most party activists see the 54-year-old Gudis -- whose recent term included controversy over his hiring of his live-in companion as an aide and an aborted run for Congress -- as the incumbent most vulnerable to an upset.

"It's a horse race," said County Executive Sidney Kramer, who is heading a slate that includes Gudis. But, in an observation that offers scant encouragement for a three-term incumbent, Kramer said he thinks the Sept. 11 primary race is "winnable" for Gudis.

Meanwhile, two Republicans -- former school board member Carol Wallace and political newcomer Robert L. Clark -- face each other in a more cordial contest to carry the GOP banner into the Nov. 6 general election.

Wallace, 54, and Clark, 29, are hoping that the first-ever election of council members by geographic district and what they see as citizen discontent with 20 years of all-Democratic rule will translate into a Republican victory in November.

District 4 -- with 49,638 Democrats, 30,982 Republicans and 11,365 independents -- takes in much of northeastern Montgomery, centering on the Route 29 corridor and including parts of Silver Spring, Olney, Burtonsville and Laytonsville. Traffic and growth are the big concerns of District 4 residents, but so far, charges over personalities and campaign tactics -- not issues -- have dominated the battle between Gudis and Praisner.

"I think it is the nastiest campaign that has been waged," said Gudis. Praisner also says there has been an unusual level of unpleasantness in the campaign, but neither she nor Gudis accepts blame.

In recent months, Praisner, 48, has challenged Gudis's use of his campaign contributions, including $825 for fees at the Jewish Community Center. In the wake of vandalism of a Jewish school, she criticized Gudis as all talk and no action in fighting hate and violence crimes, saying all he has done is sponsor the county's Sensitivity Awareness Symposium Day. And some of Praisner's supporters said that Gudis tried to intimidate them after they endorsed her.

Gudis denies he threatened anyone, saying the reports are fabrications by people with a stake in Praisner's winning. He said he was disappointed, though, that people such as Planning Board member Carol Henry, who was once an aide to Gudis, are supporting Praisner, and said he expressed that chagrin.

Gudis has described Praisner's campaign as using "CIA tactics" and said he thinks the two should be talking about the issues rather than his use of campaign funds or what he sees as other side issues.

"I don't consider a discussion of the use of campaign funds or the recommendations for changes a taboo subject for candidates," said Praisner, who argues that campaign funding changes are needed.

The high cost of campaigning must be reversed, she said, or all the good candidates will be driven away.

Gudis is outspending Praisner. His latest campaign report shows his campaign collected $100,879, with $34,544 cash in hand. Praisner collected $17,690 and has $1,448 cash on hand, according to the reports filed with the election boards.

Overall, Praisner is attacking what she sees as Gudis's lack of leadership, and Gudis is stressing his experience. Gudis, who served as president of the council in 1985 and 1989 and has been active in the Maryland Association of Counties, said Montgomery faces uncertain fiscal times because of a pending report by the Linowes Commission, a state committee studying Maryland's tax structure and how state aid is allocated.

The difference between him and Praisner, Gudis said, "is more a matter of style, more a matter of experience." He said he has all the tools and contacts to help guide the county through the next four years.

Gudis also said that as a certified public accountant, he has all-important fiscal expertise.

Gudis said Praisner simply doesn't have the experience in government or the contacts. He specifically singled out what he says is her poor relationship with Gov. William Donald Schaefer, which he said stems from when Praisner, as president of the school board, appeared before Schaefer to ask for more state funds.

"I don't have a long-term relationship with the governor," said Praisner, but she said she has a proven track record of being able to work with people. She conceded that Schaefer was not happy to hear her request for more money, but she said her obligation was to accurately portray school needs. Praisner, a resident of District 4 for 23 years, said the real question of the campaign is what Gudis has really done for the district.

"I don't think his 12 years on the council have been marked by consistent leadership on the issues facing the district," she said.

Gudis, however, said that he prides himself on consituent service and that he has led the way in pushing for solutions to drug abuse, hate violence and land-use issues. Gudis has served as a full-time council member.

Gudis has said he believes he has been subject to unfair criticism. He said that his hiring of Patricia Clark, his live-in companion, was perfectly legal and that her work has been excellent.

Gudis also has been criticized as being indecisive, but he said he is the kind of council member who likes to hear all sides.

On some issues, Gudis and Praisner agree. Both oppose a proposed amendment to the charter that would tie the property tax rate to inflation. Praisner favors a modest tax on development. Gudis has voted against development taxes, but he said he is working on legislation that would establish taxes in special development districts.

On the Republican side, Wallace and Clark said it doesn't matter to them which Democrat prevails.

"One is spend big and the other is big spend," said Wallace, a former head of the county taxpayers league, who is making county spending a major issue of her campaign.

Wallace said that neither Praisner nor Gudis knows how to say no when it comes to spending taxpayers' money, and said her main theme is the need for the county to set priorities.

Clark argued for fiscal prudence, and said that the county isn't getting its fair share back from Annapolis.

There are minor differences between Wallace and Clark on the issues. For instance, both support proposals to link the property tax rate with inflation, although Clark favored a more stringent version first advanced by a county taxpayers group.

Clark opposes a tax on new development, saying the costs are just passed on to home buyers. Wallace said she doesn't agree with people who want to make developers the villains for all the county's problems. She said the county needs to work with developers to solve the problems of growth, and one solution she favors is an impact fee that would be tied to the cost of construction.

Both Republicans said they oppose plans to build a trolley linking Silver Spring and Bethesda.

"The major difference between us is I have the background and experience," said Wallace, who ran against Gudis four years ago.

Clark, however, points to his experience of managing and owning his own business, a lawn service and landscaping company. He said he knows how to manage a budget and he can work well with people of differing points of view. Clark, who is active in the Wheaton Boys Club, and Wallace, a county resident for 26 years, said that having a Republican on the council will make for better government.