Maria Pena-Faustino is a true Republican in many ways. She doesn't think much of President Clinton, opposes abortion and thinks taxes should be slashed. She even ran for a County Council office last year on the GOP ticket. In one way, however, she's different from most Republican leaders: She's a Latina immigrant.

The Montgomery County resident now finds herself in the middle of a debate about whether she should be appointed to fill a vacancy on the county's Republican Central Committee, or whether that post should go to Charles Brooks, a white retired Navy captain who worked on Ellen R. Sauerbrey's campaign for governor last year.

Late last month, U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella, the county's most powerful Republican, called on Central Committee members to support Pena-Faustino. Other Republicans have called this a critical opportunity for the party to diversify its ranks. But Central Committee leaders say that racial and ethnic backgrounds should have nothing to do with the selection and that it should be based solely on qualifications.

Most agree that both candidates have strong credentials. Brooks was Sauerbrey's Montgomery County precinct coordinator in her failed bid for the governorship. Pena-Faustino ran an energetic shoestring campaign that reaped 86,000 votes in the general election, though she lost in a Democratic sweep of at-large council seats.

"Republicans talk about expanding the base of the party, and they have a brilliant opportunity to do this right now," said Alvin Williams, executive director of the Washington-based Black America's Political Action Committee. Williams, who directed Sauerbrey's campaign in Montgomery County, lives in Wheaton and knows both candidates. He is supporting Pena-Faustino and calls her qualifications "unquestionable."

"When you look at the makeup of the Central Committee and you look at the makeup of the county, they don't line up," Williams said. "If they're going to be a majority party, they will have to do better than that."

Central Committee members represent the party at its most grass-roots level, helping to recruit candidates for elected office and to organize dozens of local precincts, among other duties. Members are elected by affiliated voters in their party's primary and serve four-year terms. The Republican committee includes 16 members elected by legislative district and three members elected at large.

Augustus Alzona, a Filipino American who is one of the two minorities on the GOP Central Committee, said the county's Republican and Democratic central committees need to diversify their ranks--just five of 23 Democratic Central Committee members are minorities. Alzona believes the GOP vacancy provides an opportunity for the Republican Party to make gains in a county where it has long been the minority party.

"This is going to be almost a defining moment for the county party," said Alzona, who is supporting Pena-Faustino.

One in three Montgomery residents is black, Asian or Latino. Yet the 19-member GOP Central Committee includes just two members of minority groups, a Hispanic woman and an Asian American man. If Brooks were appointed, he would be the 17th white person on the panel.

The debate over whom to select for a seat vacated by Brent Mendelson in upcounty District 39 was heightened when Morella called members of the Central Committee to voice her support for Pena-Faustino. Morella, who rarely ventures into such waters, said she was impressed by Pena-Faustino last year when Pena-Faustino was running for a seat on the County Council and called her a "gutsy" campaigner unafraid to venture into Democratic strongholds.

"I felt it was important that I say I know Maria, and I know how hard she worked during the campaign and that she would be a good person on the committee," Morella said.

The congresswoman stopped short of saying the committee needs to change its racial and ethnic makeup, yet she emphasized the growing importance of diversity in local and national politics. "It should be a priority that we show an open-door policy," she said. "We have to show it through actions."

It remains to be seen, however, how much sway the congresswoman will have. Though she holds the highest elected office of any county Republican, her views are often seen as too liberal for committee members.

Robert J. Miller, the county GOP chairman, said he expects it will be a close contest when committee members vote Oct. 26. Miller, who said he is staying neutral for now, said it is unfortunate that race and ethnicity have been injected into the debate. He agrees that the party needs to promote diversity. "Absolutely," he said. "But it's a question of how you do that."

"We just don't base our determinations on people's race or gender. We try to pick the best people for the job," Miller said, adding that quotas are anathema to the GOP. "Bringing diversity into it just creates problems."

Lauren Dees, a Central Committee member who supports Brooks, said the retired naval officer has strong leadership and organizational skills that would be of great value to the county party organization. She disagreed with Alzona's contention that this could be a "defining moment" for the party.

If anything, she said, "it's an embarrassment of riches" that shows the county GOP can attract well-qualified candidates.

Brooks said he would withhold comment until after the Central Committee votes. Pena-Faustino said race should not be a determining factor.

"I've never used my race to get ahead in my life. But I believe I'm very qualified and I deserve a shot," she said. She added that bringing more minorities into leadership roles would help the party greatly in attracting minority voters: "It would help minority groups see that Republicans are just like everybody else."