Montgomery County executive candidate Neal Potter said yesterday that even if he fails in his uphill battle to oust incumbent Sidney Kramer, his candidacy already has served a purpose: It pushed Kramer into a "deathbed conversion" on the issue of growth.

Potter, a 20-year veteran of the County Council, told Washington Post reporters and editors in a luncheon interview that he thinks he can win the crucial Democratic primary Sept. 11 despite Kramer's enormous advantages in money and organization.

But even if he loses, Potter said he has made the race a referendum on development, forcing Kramer into a stricter posture on controlling growth.

The 75-year-old Potter portrayed himself as someone who has made a second career of planning Montgomery's growth. He depicted Kramer as the choice of developers, a man who, as a businessman with vast real estate holdings, naturally thinks growth is something to be encouraged.

Kramer has contended that Potter and the County Council are the ones most responsible for the county's growth policies, and that he has lived up to his pledge four years ago to control the county's development.

Potter had praise as well as criticism for the way things are going in Montgomery County. He agreed that Montgomery County is a good place to live, with sound and honest government. "The contrast to the District . . . makes us feel happy. I think it {Montgomery} is one of the better ones in the country, and I am not saying Kramer has done a bad job," he said.

Displaying a modesty rare for a candidate entering the final days of a campaign that could end his political career, Potter said his election would not be a cure-all.

"Let me say that like {Fairfax County Board Chairman} Audrey Moore, I couldn't make a radical difference in the congestion in one year or in four, but I could slow the process of increasing the difficulties," he said.

"All I can really promise," Potter said, "is that instead of stimulating the problem I could help ameliorate it."

Potter said a recent Washington Post poll showing he has about the same amount of support as Kramer, with one-third of the voters undecided, makes him believe the race can be won.

On other issues, he said he would work to reduce property taxes and try to get state permission to enact a local gasoline tax.

He said he would continue to place a high priority on the county schools and that he thinks the county needs to do more in fighting drug abuse.

Potter entered the executive's race just hours before the deadline closed last month. His decision to take on Kramer was startling: He first had said he would run for council reelection on a ticket headed by Kramer, and then he announced he wouldn't run at all, citing his wife's declining health and his disgust at what he saw as "bossism" in county governemnt.

Potter said yesterday his own age was never an issue in his political decisions, that his wife's health is on the mend and that he was persuaded by "dozens, hundreds" of people unhappy with Kramer's administration to enter the race.

"These have been my issues for a long time," Potter said of his decision to run for executive. He gently turned aside a suggestion that he entered the race out of a sense of obligation that voters should have a choice or to divert Kramer's time and money from other local races. Until Potter entered the race, Kramer, 65, faced no serious opposition and it appeared he would easily be swept back into office.

"Yes, I felt that obligation" {that people should have a choice}, Potter said. But, he said, "I certainly want to win." He added he wouldn't be getting up at 5 a.m. to campaign at Metro stations unless he was serious about his candidacy.

He also took issue with a criticism repeatedly voiced by Kramer that he does not have the temperament or experience to be county executive. Kramer has stressed his background as a businessman, his years in Annapolis as a state senator, as well as his record as county executive.

Potter pointed out that former county executive Charles W. Gilchrist had only legislative experience before he assumed office, and "I think he did a good job." Kramer is using a letter from Gilchrist praising the job he has done as county executive in his political advertisements.

Potter argued that he knows the county and that he is able to work with others. More importantly, he said, he doesn't see the job of executive as simply being a manager or administrator. Potter said there are department heads and a county administrator responsible for the day-to-day operations, and he believes the role of a county executive is to provide leadership.

Potter said his record 20 years on the council, his 10 years as a civic activist plus his training as an economist, prepare him to lead the county because the major issues facing it are growth and taxes.

Potter promised that if elected he would seek to lessen the increasing burden of property taxes on homeowners. He said he would push for enactment of a tax on development as well as on parking spaces. A proposal for a countywide development tax was opposed by Kramer and failed to win council approval. Kramer vetoed a bill that would have placed a $120-a-year tax on employee parking spaces.

The taxpayers revolt that has swept Montgomery County, forcing a cut in the property tax rate and resulting in a number of tax limitation measures being placed on the Nov. 6 ballot, is a result of development not paying for itself and the county not finding other revenue sources, Potter said.

Potter said he would look to Annapolis for help in taking the pressure off property taxes. However, he said he didn't agree with the stance most common to Montgomery politicians, that the state should be returning more money to the county in state aid.

He said he agreed with Gov. William Donald Schaefer as well as Silver Spring lawyer Robert Linowes, who is heading a state commission on taxes, that the state should allocate its money on the basis of need. Just because the money came from one area, Potter said, that doesn't mean the area has a complete claim on it.

Potter said his solution is to persuade the state to let the county have its own sources of revenue, such as a local gasoline tax. He said that the tax would not be excessive -- just a couple of cents -- and that it has proved workable in such places as Northern Virginia.

But he stressed that such a tax alone won't be enough and that Montgomery needs to do a number of things to solve its fiscal problems.

Potter said he believes that the Kramer policies -- opposition to the development tax and use of county surplus funds -- places the county in a bad fiscal position. He said that if he were elected he would try not to raise the property tax rate, but he admitted he didn't know if that would be possible.