If Arlington Democrats learned anything about Monte Davis after last spring's special election for a County Board seat, it was that Davis can take a punch.

Davis, who in her first bid for public office lost to Democrat James B. Hunter in May, waited only six weeks before deciding to run again in November, this time against Democratic board member Mary Margaret Whipple.

Although she began as an underdog, the Republican-backed Davis's criticisms of what she calls the "closed door" government run by the Arlington Democratic establishment have struck a chord among some residents, particularly those in South Arlington angered by a proposed 68-bed county facility for drug addicts and homeless people.

Arlington Democratic leaders, who control all 15 of the county's elected offices, cast Davis as a political opportunist who generally doesn't know much about government. But they privately acknowledge that they are surprised by her tenacity. Like a popular children's toy, Davis wobbles but she doesn't fall down.

Davis, 43, a bank officer who received 45 percent of the vote last spring despite outspending Hunter 2 to 1, faces an even more formidable task in trying to unseat Whipple, who is seeking her third four-year term.

Unlike Hunter, a soft-spoken community activist who was a political novice when he beat Davis, Whipple is a veteran politician with a loyal following and an extensive record in government.

Whipple, 49, has been a key champion of Arlington's interests as chairman of Metro's board of directors and as a member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' committee on aircraft noise. A longtime activist, Whipple began her political career in 1976, when she was appointed to Arlington's School Board.

Whipple's campaign has stressed Arlington's generally good reputation for providing community services while maintaining the lowest tax rate in the region. She also points to the County Board's strict adherence to its land-use guidelines as proof that the board is striving to keep development from affecting neighborhoods by keeping it in the Metro corridors.

Whipple, who gave the Democrats a majority on the five-member County Board when she was first elected in 1982, has the county's Democrats behind her and had raised about $30,500 as of Oct. 1.

"I think most people here are happy about Arlington County," said Whipple, who said Davis's claims that Whipple and other board members do not listen to the community "is like attacking Arlington voters for the choices they've made."

Davis ran as a Republican against Hunter but is running as an independent this time because the GOP filing deadline for November came during her first campaign. She has the support of the Republicans, who had not planned to field a candidate before Davis filed to run again.

Davis, who admits she was naive about the election process the first time around, has raised about $30,600, about half what she raised in her campaign against Hunter. Unlike last spring, Davis has not received large contributions from developers, which opened her previous campaign to criticism from Democrats.

While Democrats are saying that Davis's dip in contributions indicates that her big-money supporters do not believe she can beat Whipple, Davis says it is the result of her concentrating on running a grass-roots campaign.

"Most of our contributions are from people who gave only a few dollars," said Davis, a former Chamber of Commerce president and a member of the county's Planning Commission, who has criticized what she calls wasteful spending by Arlington's government. "Every day, more and more people are coming forward and saying they're tired of business as usual on the County Board. People are ready for a change."

As proof, Davis points to the controversy over the proposed center to shelter the homeless and treat drug addicts, which has angered residents whose neighborhoods are being considered for the facility by a citizens panel.

At a recent meeting of the panel, more than 200 South Arlington residents showed up to cheer civic leaders who accused the county of keeping them in the dark about the planned facility. With them was Davis, who views a strong showing in South Arlington as vital to her chances of beating Whipple.

Although Davis has gained support in South Arlington, it remains to be seen whether the discontent among residents there is such that they will vote against Whipple in protest. Many civic leaders there do not think so.

"There's no doubt that people are angry with the county right now," said Randy Swart, president of the Barcroft School and Civic League. "But I don't believe they'd vote out someone with as fine a record as Mary Margaret because of this one issue . . . . It takes more than one issue to win an election."