The candidates for the Stafford Board of Supervisors painted sharply different portraits of the state of the county during their first election debate last week.

The incumbents--Alvin Y. Bandy, Lindbergh A. Fritter and Robert C. Gibbons--spoke of a well-run, prospering Stafford that has come a long way from where it was a decade or two ago. On the other side of the table, the challengers--Peter Fields, Jack Cavalier and Bill Gray--disputed that notion while painting their opponents as pro-development pawns who have led Stafford into fiscal turmoil.

"I'm proud to say I've been a part of what has made Stafford County a great place to live," said Gibbons, a two-time incumbent who is running against Gray in the Rock Hill District.

Gray countered that notion, saying he sees undisciplined spending even though Stafford's reserve fund is at its lowest level in several years.

"Let me guarantee you, my opponent and I manage budgets differently. My opponent suggested giving away $700,000 at a time when we need every penny we have," Gray said, referring to Gibbons's proposal in March to forgive a loan extended to the Kenmore Association, which bought a portion of Ferry Farm. The proposal did not pass.

And so it went at North Stafford High School. The candidates volleyed ideas, and occasionally insults, during three 30-minute debates sponsored by the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and Prestige Cable. Each candidate was given a chance to make opening and closing statements; in between, they answered questions from a panel.

Bandy and Fields, who are vying for the George Washington seat, began the debates with a discussion of the county's most pressing issue: managing growth.

"Runaway growth is bankrupting the county," Fields said in his opening statement. "Developers are not required to pay their fair share."

Fields then hit on perhaps his strongest election theme, extending commuter bus service into the southern part of the county. "The type of sprawl [being supported in Stafford] makes us dependent on the automobile," he said.

Bandy, who has been on the board for 28 years, fired back: "The reason so many people move here is because of the good quality of life. We've tried to get the type of commercial growth that pays its own bills. That's the type we need to see."

Fritter and Cavalier, the two candidates for the Griffis-Widewater seat, engaged in the most subdued of the three debates, with both candidates hitting on common election themes.

"I'm a full-time supervisor," said Fritter, who has been a supervisor for 24 years. "I'm there when you need me."

Cavalier, meanwhile, put forth his goals of expanding the county's recreational facilities and redirecting growth.

"It's time for the board to make a stand against uncontrolled growth," Cavalier said. "I will work for the taxpayer, not the developer."

Although the three races center on somewhat different issues, the overarching theme that incumbents and challengers want voters to think about is whether a change in leadership is needed.

Cavalier, Fields and Gray repeatedly hammered home the idea that their opponents were not suited for the pivotal changes occurring in Stafford. They portrayed the incumbents as rooted in the past and not prepared to deal with today's issues. They attempted to advance the notion that now is the most crucial time in the development of the county, and that they are the ones who can properly manage its growth.

"Change is not always good," Cavalier said, "but this time, change is good."

The incumbents, who share a combined 60 years on the board, downplayed the "critical juncture" argument, and instead sought credit for bringing the county to its current level of prosperity. They touched on the board's accomplishments, such as making sure that there is an abundant water supply and that students go to school in buildings, not trailers.

Bandy summed up their stance: "I think the best bet is to stick with the tried and true."