Just about everything Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo has done and plans to do if reelected can be found in one place, she says: "It's in the general plan."

The general plan that Bobo pushed through the County Council this year is more than a 20-year blueprint for guiding growth. It is Bobo's political playbook. In it, she lays out her legislative agenda for protecting the environment, improving transportation, providing affordable housing and controlling development.

It is a document that appeals to the Democrat's methodical, deliberative style of governing and one that, in many ways, represents her transformation from a cautious, nine-year County Council member to a leader who almost single-handedly sets the public policy agenda in this county of 182,000 people.

Bobo has long viewed the general plan as her best opportunity to leave a lasting imprint, since Howard County law limits county executives to two four-year terms. As Bobo aide Grace Kubofcik points out, "You figure in eight years a county executive only gets a chance to develop one general plan."

But Bobo's challenger, Republican Charles I. Ecker, sees the general plan as little more than a pitch for votes and a way for Bobo to hide her shortcomings.

"My opponent talks a lot about controlling growth, but she's done very little to provide the infrastructure to deal with the effects of that growth," Ecker said, pointing to still crowded roads and schools.

Ecker contends that instead of scrutinizing the general plan, voters should examine the county budget. Bobo's spending habits will haunt the county now that the economy is souring, he said.

Under Bobo, county spending has risen about 88 percent, to $286.4 million this year, as the population has grown 18.8 percent. Already, county officials are making contingency plans to cut $12 million from their current budget as revenue projections fall.

Bobo defends her spending as a necessary response to past growth, adding that Ecker was never a great advocate of budget cuts when he was a county school administrator.

She said her campaign to slow development -- every major piece of slow-growth legislation that has been enacted originated in her office -- demonstrates her commitment to give the county time to catch up with growth allowed by the previous administration. And standing up to the vociferous objections of the development community "shows that I am someone who can make the difficult decisions," Bobo said.

Folksy and grandfatherly, Ecker is an obvious foil to the more serious and composed Bobo. He often spices his campaign appearances with down-home witticisms, saying, for instance, that, unlike Bobo, he would not delay the search for a new landfill site, no matter how unpopular it might be: "When you have to eat a frog, you don't think about it too long."

Ecker has taken Bobo to task for making major policy decisions behind closed doors and without a great deal of community participation. He pledges that his administration would float ideas by a citizens advisory panel.

Bobo has countered that Ecker's approach would cause legislative gridlock. If she had tried to reach consensus on every issue, "we would have done nothing for four years," Bobo said.

According to her aides, Bobo uses a team approach to develop legislation, bringing in department heads and consultants to craft and debate the merits of proposed laws.

Trained as a lawyer, Bobo, 46, is by most accounts comfortable with that practice because it enables her to sit back and listen before making up her mind. The role is a natural extension from the one she played as a council member, when she frequently was the deciding vote on controversial issues.

"She's a smart politician," said Joyce Kelly, president of the Howard County Citizens Association. "What may be viewed as being out in front of the growth issue is a reflection of the tenor of the public. She's riding the crest of their sentiment."

Bobo's deliberative manner cost her midway through her term when, in the spring of 1988, she lost a fight to lower the development potential of land in the still-rural western part of the county. The legislation would have changed the zoning there from one house for every three acres to one house for every 20 acres.

Bobo attributes that defeat in part to allowing the legislation to originate within the County Council and having no one really take charge of getting it enacted. "That is one of the reasons why we've done all administration-sponsored legislation ever since," Bobo said.

Bobo began setting the legislative agenda with a move to preserve farmland by changing the way the county buys development rights. She followed it with environmental legislation to ban development near stream beds and on steep slopes and a controversial 18-month limit on new building permits.

The limit, which is scheduled to be lifted in March, bought time for county officials to develop the general plan, Bobo said. She now is pushing for an "adequate public facilities" law to try to keep development from outpacing the capacity of roads and schools.

Bobo's insistence on initiating legislation herself has not endeared her to the council or the development community. Council member Angela Beltram (D-District 2), for instance, often reminds people that she offered an "adequate public facilities" plan long before Bobo.

Bobo's style, Beltram said, "hinders her. But the people who are concerned about growth ought to recognize that the legislation we've passed to slow down growth came out of her office."

Alton Scavo, a vice president for the Rouse Co., has complained that the county government now operates with an "us-versus-them {mentality} when it used to be 'we.' "

Bobo responds that the development community's complaints simply show that "I and the administration stuck to our guns. When you really think about it, that's what people are upset about."

Ecker, who at 61 is making his first campaign for public office, is the first to admit that taking on Bobo is an uphill battle.

Ecker, who was a teacher and school administrator for 36 years, admits to being uneasy when he walks into a political gathering. And he often strays from his own campaign strategy.

For instance, his newspaper advertisements and cable television commercials accuse Bobo of paying only lip service to the need to slow growth. But in interviews, he hardly discusses the subject. Instead, he stresses spending.

Bobo is betting that her plan to control growth will win her a second term. "It was just so clear that these things had to be done in the county. All you had to do was look at all the other counties around us and see what was coming," she said.