The Stafford County Democratic Party is holding a candidates forum today to determine whether members want to endorse any of the four independent candidates in the fall elections.

The candidates will present their platforms to members of the county's Democratic committee, and to the public, at 9:30 a.m. in the board chambers of the county's main administration building.

"It gives the Democratic committee a chance to hear independent candidates to see if we want to endorse anybody," said Alane Callander, chairman of the Stafford County Democratic Party.

"There's a feeling that it's good to get moderates elected in a conservative county."

Jack Cavalier, who is opposing Republican Lindbergh A. Fritter for the Griffis-Widewater seat on the Board of Supervisors, will be one of the independent candidates participating. Cavalier said he couldn't seek the endorsement of the Democrats because he is a government worker but did leave the door open for their support.

"If the Democrats choose to endorse me as the better candidate," Cavalier said, "that is their option."

Just as significantly, though, the event also serves as the latest effort by local Democrats to gain a firmer foothold in the county.

In a county where 65 percent of voters are registered Republicans, Stafford Democrats have been relegated to the fringes of the area's political debate for many years.

And local Democrats haven't helped their position by bickering among themselves, failing to offer candidates for most races and not forming a solid, consistent platform of issues.

Party leaders see an opportunity to reverse that trend this year because of two factors: the influx of thousands of new residents and the candidacy of Pete Fields, who many Democrats view as their best chance to put a party member on the Board of Supervisors for the first time since the mid-1980s.

"Democrats are on the way back" in Stafford, said Craig Bieber, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia. "Stafford County is changing very rapidly. The northern part of the county has a lot of new voters from Fairfax, Prince William and other parts of the Washington metro area. These folks, by and large, are concerned about the types of issues Democrats are concerned about."

The main issue for Stafford Democrats is unmanageable growth. Republicans, too, have pinpointed controlling expansion as a pet cause, so Democrats are seeking to lay the blame for Stafford's rising growth problems on current leaders, who they view as dangerously pro-business.

And Democrats are hoping that new residents, most of whom would like to leave development behind them, agree.

Meanwhile, area Republicans see their new neighbors as potential GOP voters.

"What we find is that families that want to come out of the congestion tend to be more conservative," said John Van Hoy, chairman of the Stafford County Republican Club.

"I think when you look at the outer suburbs, those are all Republican strongholds," said Ed Matricardi, political director of the Republican Party of Virginia. "The Democratic Party is becoming more and more an urban party. So once you get outside the Beltway, it's harder for them to compete. I don't think they'll able to compete for a long time in Stafford."

Nevertheless, the Democratic presence has been more palpable this year and is gearing up for a good fight, Van Hoy said.

"We're really energized to get going," Van Hoy said. "We're very glad that they are alive and well. Any group that goes unchallenged has a tendency to not fight as hard."

That added vigor is showing up in the race for the George Washington seat, which pits Fields against GOP Supervisor Alvin Y. Bandy and figures to be the most contested race this year.

"The Democratic Party does cause you to really get out and get with it," said Bandy, a seven-term incumbent who has largely been opposed by independent candidates in past elections.

The 42-year-old Fields, who is a professional musician and personal trainer, is hoping to hook onto a growing distaste for uncontrolled growth, while portraying himself as a younger, more progressive choice than the 72-year-old Bandy.

Somewhat by default, Fields also is carrying the mantle for his party.

"There is a responsibility to be the only Democrat running," Fields said. "Some people are amused that I'm trying to run as a Democrat in Stafford, but nobody has rejected me offhand because I'm running as a Democrat."

Still, Fields realizes that no matter what strides he and his party make over the next few months, they both face a long, uphill battle in Stafford. He said, "I've had some people say, 'What, are you crazy?' I say, 'Well . . . maybe.' "