One by one they stood up and volunteered, offering to help Montgomery County executive candidate Neal Potter in his bid to oust incumbent Sidney Kramer.

Amid the offers of free printing and wine-and-cheese parties, came an overture from a high source: Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner. Sonner acknowledged that he was unwilling to take on Kramer himself, but he cheered Potter's attempt.

"I'd like to help you do it," Sonner said.

Since making that offer as Potter's fledgling campaign got underway early in July, the presence of Montgomery's controversial state's attorney has loomed over a campaign that is increasingly bitter and close.

Kramer and his supporters, as well as some in Montgomery's legal and political community, see Sonner as the shadow candidate, pulling the strings of the Potter campaign.

"That is totally false . . . . It is unfair to Neal, it is unfair to me and it is contrary to fact," said Sonner, who has clashed repeatedly with Kramer over criminal justice issues. Sonner has made it clear he thinks Kramer should be turned out of office in Tuesday's Democratic primary.

But he said he is not running the show. "If you know Neal, you know no one runs his campaign but Neal," he said.

Kramer disagrees. "The whole campaign is being managed by Andrew Sonner," he said. "And the fuel that is driving it is hate and bitterness and a lack of integrity."

Since Potter entered the race, there have been these links between his campaign and Sonner's office:

Potter's campaign manager is a Sonner aide. Richard Crane, prosecution management coordinator, said it was his idea to run Potter's campaign and that he asked Sonner for permission to take a 15-day leave from his $57,000-a-year job. Potter said he has long known Crane and it was a natural appointment; critics of Sonner say Crane does the bidding of the prosecutor.

A Potter fund-raising letter sent to lawyers in the county was signed by Sonner and Robert L. Dean, an assistant state's attorney, and listed Dean's telephone number at his government office. Dean said he got involved in the Potter campaign after Sonner asked people in his office to volunteer. Dean said that on reflection it was a mistake to list his office number.

A group of young people who described themselves as recovering drug and alcohol addicts formed a political action committee, which promptly endorsed Potter and went on a guerrilla-type offensive in criticizing Kramer's efforts in drug abuse.

The group held a news conference, staged a brief sit-in at Kramer's office and turned up at a Kramer reception to hand out "Dump Kramer" bumper stickers.

Their legal adviser is Dan Rupli, another Sonner political confidant also active in the Potter campaign.

The most recent development, provoking the fiercest reaction, was a pro-Potter pamphlet signed by Sonner and authorized by his reelection campaign committee that alleged that "Kramer placed the interests of his family-owned real estate business and his rich developer friends ahead of our citizens' interests."

Potter tried to distance himself from the literature but acknowledged that he handed out the brochures while campaigning and that some may have been mailed with some of his literature. Crane said he approved the brochures for mailings with Potter material.

Potter said yesterday he was returning the literature to Sonner, and that he hadn't read it before he distributed it.

"I wouldn't have written it that way," said Potter.

Kramer seized on that admission -- "it contrasts completely with the image of the Neal Potter I have known as cautious and careful" -- to bolster his claim that Potter has "lost complete control" of his campaign.

Potter responded: "He {Sonner} certainly doesn't manipulate me as much as Lanny Davis manipulates him." Davis is a Montgomery County newspaper executive and lawyer who is running Kramer's campaign. Davis, a longtime Democratic activist, arouses as much antagonism from his critics as does Sonner but the difference, say legal experts, is the position Sonner holds.

Harry Lerch, immediate past president of the county bar association, said he thinks Sonner's actions are "quite unusual" for Montgomery politics.

Lerch, a Republican who nonetheless is supporting Kramer for reelection, said the use of a government phone number for political fund-raising is "very startling."

"Andy as an individual I guess can say anything he wants," Lerch said. But coming from a state's attorney "it sounds like a charge of misconduct."

Sonner has stressed that he is not accusing Kramer of any crime but merely bringing to the public's attention that Kramer has active real interest interests as well as vast campaign contributions from developers.