In Prince William County, growth has been the campaign issue.

In last year's "Rural Crescent" open-space plan, in June's Republican primary for Gainesville supervisor and in last fall's special election for Occoquan supervisor, growth was the lightning rod for debate.

But in this year's race for chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, many activists and political observers say the explosive growth debate has yet to truly ignite.

Activists say the contenders--incumbent Kathleen K. Seefeldt (D) and her GOP challenger, Sean Connaughton--have seemed thus far to examine the "symptoms" of growth, such as schools, crime and campaign finances. And the question of which of those issues will become the central point of discussion when the two campaigns heat up after Labor Day has political observers across the county speculating.

"There hasn't been that much going on over the summer," said Martha T. Hendley, the slow-growth advocate and recent candidate in the Republican primary for the Gainesville seat on the board. "I know there are big differences between [Seefeldt and Connaughton], and I would expect to see that develop over the course of the campaign."

"It will be interesting to see whether the contrasts will happen in the chairman's race as they obviously will in the Gainesville supervisor's race over the issue of growth," said Clerk of the Court Dave Mabie, referring to the district that played host to mighty development debates during this summer's Republican primary. "And I think all of us will wonder, 'Is growth still as hot an issue this year as it was last year, or has the emphasis shifted to transportation and school safety?' "

There's no shortage of county activists to proclaim that--at least among residents--residential and retail development still is a very hot issue indeed. In a study conducted last May and June, almost 80 percent of residents polled said the county should grow more slowly than it has been. Half said county government should control and regulate development more.

School safety and transportation, along with a host of other topics, are part and parcel of growth, activists point out. Although concern in the western end of Prince William focuses on what will be built where, the county's eastern end is more concerned with coping with the development that's already there.

"Quality growth and development have always been on the plate, but it really raised its head with the Rural Crescent," said Jack Kooyoomjian, chairman of the grass-roots community group LOCCA-PELT, referring to the plan that the board pushed through last year to preserve open space on the county's western end. "I think [the issue] is just beginning to mature."

Most recently, Seefeldt and Connaughton have touted separate issues. Connaughton has talked of campaign and government ethics.

Seefeldt, meanwhile, has focused on schools, after-school day-care programs, domestic violence and other topics. On Thursday, she addressed the schools issue by promising to help raise $38 million in state and local funds over four years to eliminate the county's 150 classroom trailers. She emphasized that 13 new schools have been built in the past 13 years, and that the next five years promise nine more.

Two weeks ago, Connaughton offered the second in a seven-part series outlining his platform that focused on many of the nitty-gritty inner workings of how the Board of County Supervisors runs.

Meanwhile, each candidate accused the other of dancing around the periphery of what matters to voters. And both named the same priorities as solely their own.

"I don't think he understands how local government works," Seefeldt said Thursday of her opponent. "The issues are reducing crime, improving education, building our transportation infrastructure and reducing taxes. Those are the issues.

"It's not whether the chairman of the board requires individual supervisors to keep records of their constituent calls," she said, naming one of the recommendations Connaughton offered two weeks ago.

Connaughton said Friday that he was gearing up his campaign for a final news conference on growth by first discussing the "symptoms" of it--such as schools, transportation, taxes and public safety--while adding that his opponent was looking only at "peripheral issues."

"She's not focusing on the main issues, because her record on those issues is simply abysmal," he said.

A third contender, Robert K. McBride, is running as a libertarian and has stayed out the fray thus far. McBride said Friday that he plans to gear up his campaign after Labor Day.