Gainesville Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III has barely attended Republican party meetings in the past few years. He spars almost constantly with Board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (At Large), the party's local leader. And he says that county Republicans have abandoned party principles of less government, less regulation and the protection of property rights.

Those are, he said, his reasons for quitting the party and running as an independent to retain his seat on the Board of County Supervisors.

"I think for some time, the community leadership has become very narrowly focused and has abandoned some of the national Republican policies and platforms of smaller government, less bureaucracy, less regulation and more property rights," Wilbourn said.

Connaughton is particularly troublesome for Wilbourn. Wilbourn said he could not abide by party demands to promise to support all Republicans on the fall ballot because "I will not support candidates that undermine the private-public community project that I have," a reference to Connaughton's fervent opposition to Wilbourn's plans for a park in Gainesville.

"I will not support candidates that I feel are divisive," Wilbourn added. "I am not a professional politician. I have values a lot different than some of these folks."

Wilbourn's independent move is the latest twist in what is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing and important elections in Prince William's history. Candidates have essentially split into two camps: those who support the policies of Connaughton and those who support the policies of Wilbourn and Sheriff E. Lee Stoffregen III (D).

The Stoffregen faction has accused Connaughton of getting Col. Glendell Hill, a recent Republican convert, to run against the sheriff, while Connaughton has accused the sheriff and others of recruiting and backing candidates to run against him. The latest example is Larry D. Williams Sr., who filed on the Friday deadline to challenge Connaughton in a Republican primary.

Even as Wilbourn was dropping out of the Republican Party, he was soliciting signatures for Williams to get on the ballot. Wilbourn, who gathered 11 signatures including his own, said he has never met Williams and knows next to nothing about him.

"I have not committed to support this gentleman. I've never met this gentleman," Wilbourn said. "This gentleman needed petitions at a very quick pace, and I was asked to help." Wilbourn said he was asked to help by Jerry Osgood, who four years ago was Wilbourn's campaign manager, and who now runs Williams's campaign.

Connaughton and Wilbourn have diverged on most major growth issues over the past three years, with Connaughton generally opposing large projects and Wilbourn supporting virtually all development proposals. Connaughton and Stoffregen, backed by Wilbourn and others on the board, have split over the sheriff's attempts to expand his limited duties into areas that fall under the jurisdiction of the county Police Department.

At stake in the fall: in which direction county residents want to go.

Connaughton deflected Wilbourn's criticism, saying, "Mr. Wilbourn is simply trying to change the dynamics of this election, and that is the policies he's pursued are extremely unpopular in his district and in the county as a whole. He may want to blame me and others for his problems, but that simply is not the case."

Connaughton noted that Wilbourn remained in the Republican Party while supporting his Democratic opponent in his 1999 election

In Gainesville, some suggest that Wilbourn's party shift had less to do with any particular philosophy or political grudge than it did with a desire to get reelected.

"The brutal truth is, I think he expected to lose in the Republican primary," said John Stirrup, a slow-growth, anti-tax candidate who became the Republican nominee after Wilbourn chose to file as an independent. "I think he read the tea leaves and looked at the map and said a two-way race is not as favorable to me as a three-way or even four-way race."

Four years ago, Wilbourn eked out an 11-vote victory in a three-way Republican primary against two slow-growth candidates who split the anti-Wilbourn vote. Wilbourn went on to comfortably beat Democrat Gary Friedman, who is running again this year in a district that leans heavily Republican.

Wilbourn is confident he will emerge victorious in November. "I think I'll get a lot of Republicans, and I think I'll get my share of Democrats," he said. "I'm very confident on this one."