After weeks of bickering between the candidates, Fairfax County voters were to resolve the chief argument in the sheriff's election yesterday: whether it was about character and qualifications, as incumbent Sheriff Carl R. Peed (R) maintained, or the management and efficiency of the department, as challenger Stanley G. Barry (D) said.

Although Peed, 52, has been sheriff since 1990 and has won two previous elections with little opposition, this race was marked by a rhetorical fervor rarely seen in the sheriff's contest. It began shortly after Barry asked for a leave of absence to enter the race in May. The 41-year-old lieutenant had served in the department for 19 years, but Peed fired him.

Soon Barry was attacking Peed over what he said was low morale among the 536 members of the sheriff's department and pointed to a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by three African American deputies. Peed had fired two of the deputies for disobeying his order to stop discussing their complaints publicly, but the county's Civil Service Commission ordered the deputies reinstated.

Barry also accused Peed of allowing undertrained deputies to work in the county jail, from which two convicted felons escaped in May. Peed said there was no lack of training. Both escapees were captured.

Recently, Peed went on the offensive, pointing out that Barry had been convicted of drunken driving in 1975 and trespassing in a swimming pool in 1979.

Barry said those offenses were committed in his youth, and he had matured. Peed also noted that Barry had been arrested for drunken driving in North Carolina shortly after he joined the sheriff's department in 1980, but Barry said the charge was reduced to reckless driving.

Last week, Peed drove home his points about Barry with a mass mailing that mentioned Barry's arrests and contrasted them to Peed's own arrest-free record. At the same time, the state Democratic Party sent a mailing that implied Peed had achieved success in the department by marrying a the daughter of a previous sheriff.

Finally, Republicans attacked Barry and his father, state Sen. Warren E. Barry (Fairfax) after the longtime Republican stalwart donated $75,000 to his son's Democratic campaign. Some Republicans were said to be considering trying to strip the elder Barry of his chairmanship of the Senate Transportation Committee.

CAPTION: Incumbent Carl R. Peed (R), left, and Stanley G. Barry (D) traded bitter allegations during the campaign.