Four Montgomery County Council incumbents are seeking reelection to the council's four at-large seats in a feisty Democratic primary that pits them not only against three challengers but also against each other, and that could mean dramatic changes in direction for the council.

Council members Bruce T. Adams, Rose Crenca, Isiah Leggett and Michael L. Subin are running together on the Democrats for Montgomery slate headed by County Executive Sidney Kramer. They face serious challenges in the crucial Sept. 11 primary from Silver Spring civic activist Gene Lynch and former council aide Gail Ewing, with Michael A. Cafarelli Sr., a Rockville bus driver, running the understated campaign of a political newcomer.

Montgomery's council changes size and direction this year, growing from seven to nine members with five members elected by smaller geographic districts. However, the at-large seats will be decided by countywide balloting with the seats going to the top four votegetters.

Because Montgomery is predominantly Democratic -- 195,523 Democrats to 119,168 Republicans and 48,164 independents -- the Democratic primary promises to be -- as it has been in the past 20 years -- the decisive election.

However, that hasn't dissuaded five Republicans from entering the race, forcing a primary that will give Montgomery's minority party badly needed exposure and publicity. Facing off in the Sept. 11 GOP contest are former delegate Robin Ficker, former county GOP chairman Richard C. LaSota, civic activist George Sauer, lawyer Edward R. Shannon and Silver Spring architect John F. Thomas.

Among the Democrats, the campaign has been dominated by the issues of growth and development -- a debate that has divided the slate, with Crenca and Subin on one side and Adams and Leggett on the other. Adams and Leggett, both completing their first terms on the council, have generally been seen as joining with veteran council member Neal Potter, now challenging Kramer for county executive, to form the slow-growth wing of the council.

Crenca and Subin, for example, both supported Kramer's redevelopment plans for downtown Silver Spring, which Adams and Leggett opposed. Adams and Leggett have supported proposals to tax new development and private parking spaces; Subin and Crenca sided with Kramer in opposing both tax proposals.

Lynch clearly is attempting to align himself on the side of Adams and Leggett, while Ewing is boldly asking voters to help her "Smash the Slate."

"I see myself with Bruce and Ike on 90 percent of the issues over the last four years," said Lynch, who tells audiences at candidate forums that they should vote for him as a way to change the balance on the council.

Lynch and Ewing have been given a boost in their races by Potter's last-minute decision to challenge Kramer.

First, Potter's candidacy gives an added legitimacy to the non-incumbent candidates who are calling for a change in county government. Potter also has endorsed Ewing and Lynch. More importantly, Potter's challenge is preoccupying Kramer, diverting him -- as well as his campaign treasury -- from involvement in council races.

Adams and Leggett spurned Potter's suggestion they abandon Kramer and run with him, saying they had already made a commitment and arguing Kramer that has done a good job as executive.

Of the four incumbents, Crenca, 64, has served the longest, with 12 years. In the past four years, she has pushed for more funding for county human service programs and led efforts to close a loophole in the county growth limits.

She is best known, though, for her deciding vote in controversial plans to redevelop downtown Silver Spring. Crenca's support of developer Lloyd Moore's proposed Silver Triangle office and retail complex earned her the lasting enmity of hard-core opponents of the project.

"I really care about Silver Spring. I live here," said Crenca, adding that she has no regrets about doing what she thought was right -- even if it costs her a council seat. She said the main focus of her campaign is seeing that the quality of life is maintained on a balanced budget. She is opposed to a charter amendement that would tie property tax revenue to the rate of inflation.

Also opposed to the charter amendment is Subin, 41, of Gaithersburg, who is completing a first term on the council. Subin, an adjunct professor at Montgomery College, has been chairman of the council's education committee, and he lists schools and improving day care as top priorities.

Subin is seen by some party activists as vulnerable to an upset -- partly because he is still disliked by some party regulars who resent that he was registered as a Republican until shortly before he emerged as a council candidate. Subin also is has been criticized as a strong ally of Kramer.

Subin scoffed at that suggestion, saying he barely knew Kramer before running for office. But he prides himself on his good working relationship with Kramer, saying the two are able to work together on solutions to county problems.

Adams, 42, and Leggett, 45, have been in the forefront of trying to get the county to adopt a tax on development, contending the demands of growth are outpacing the ability of the county to pay for them. They also argue that the bill for the county's growth is increasingly falling on the backs of homeowners in the form of skyrocketing taxes.

Adams, of Bethesda, a former research director for Common Cause and a lecturer at the University of Maryland, is a protege of Potter, given to careful study of issues. Viewed by many as having designs on the county executive's office, Adams lists taxes and growth as top issues, but he notes the real concern of the 1990s may turn out to be something entirely different, given the current economic slowdown.

Adams helped to author the charter amendment with leaders of the taxpayers group Fairness in Taxation. He initiated the county's successful Community Service Day, in which people volunteer a day to the community. He sponsored the county's law guaranteeing workers the right to a smoke-free environment, pushed for improvements in day care and supported increased recycling.

Leggett, a lawyer, professor at Howard University and decorated Army captain, is seen by most activists as having the easiest reelection bid. Leggett lists as his main issues balancing growth and development, ensuring quality education and increasing affordable housing.

Leggett, the only black on the council and in the race, sees himself as "strong independent voice." He was the only council member to oppose construction of the Silver Spring-Bethesda trolley. Leggett, of Silver Spring, has headed the county's personnel committee and has pushed for improvements in the way the county contracts with minority businesses.

Lynch, 33, president of a residential construction company, former president of the Allied Civic Movement and a founder of Fairness in Taxation, is making his first run for public office. He sees protection of the environment, restricting development and reducing the property tax burden as the most pressing needs facing the county.

Lynch also thinks that government needs to change the way it does business, placing the interests of citizens above those of developers on its agenda. Lynch, a leader in the fight against the massive redevelopment of Silver Spring and supporter of the trolley, said his campaign is powered by volunteers rather than by an infusion of money.

Ewing, 45, a public policy/education coordinator for the Alzheimer's Association and a former aide to then-County Council member Esther Gelman, is making her second run for council, after a strong but unsuccessful effort in 1986.

"Restoring faith in county government" is her main theme. She agrees that growth and traffic congestion are big concerns and promises to fight to preserve the suburban character of Montgomery County.

But, Ewing, of Potomac, also thinks there is more to county government than land use. She said she would work on education and health needs, and that she is particuarly interested in working to address the needs of the growing senior population. Ewing opposes the trolley and thinks the solution to county finances is cutting spending rather than voting new taxes. She supported the referendum drive for a charter amendement to limit taxes as a tactic to force the county to cut taxes, but she doesn't favor any of the measures appearing on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Cafarelli, 37, a county employee for eight years who once ran his own business, is billing himself as the only blue-collar candidate running for council office, saying he is someone who understands the demands and pressures of everyday life.

"I am trying to carry the concerns of the average person who works. The person who puts in 40 to 60 hours a week just to get by, and who little by little is getting squeezed," said Cafarelli. He supports a tax on development and said he would work to make sure Montgomery doesn't become the county of the rich.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are all sounding similar themes -- it's time to break the Democratic domination of county government, Montgomery needs to do a better job getting its fair share from Annapolis and the county should put a brake on taxes and spending.

"We really are not fighting each other," said Sauer, 56, a real estate agent from Potomac who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 1986 and is a former head of the Montgomery Civic Federation.

Sauer said his big concern is preserving the quality of life and handling growth. "Prioritize is the big word . . . to eliminate waste and duplication," he said.

Ficker, 47, of Potomac, who served a term in the House of Delegates, perhaps is best known for his efforts during the past 16 years in placing 12 referendums on Montgomery ballots.

A basic theme of those referendums as well as his candidacy is to protect the local taxpayer and to try to do a better job of getting state money back from Annapolis.

LaSota, 40, a teacher in the county schools who lives in Burtonsville, said he has seen the quality of life deteriorate, with traffic congestion getting worse, schools becoming crowded and police protection on the decline.

He said the county should insist that the state pay its fair share for roads and schools and that the county do a better job of managing its affairs.

Thomas, 47, an achitect from Silver Spring and an Army veteran, sees taxes and growth as major issues. He has argued that the county must do a better job of making sure it is getting the best services for every tax dollar. A 20-year resident of the county, Thomas is making his first run for political office.

Shannon, 60, a lawyer from Silver Spring, is running what he acknowledges is a low-profile campaign, filing for office but not doing any real campaigning. He said that if elected, he would hold the line against any increase in taxes and public debt. He said he is committed to proper support of services that benefit all citizens, such as fire and police, and that he would support a countywide group medical policy to assist residents with the cost of medical care.