The image of the U.S. Capitol on Stafford County's economic development Web site is a less than obvious choice of logo for a place more than 30 miles from Washington, but it makes perfect sense to Gerry Gordon.

Gordon has worked for the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority for 20 years, and he remembers how its first advertisements -- showing pictures of Washington -- confused people.

"People said, 'Those things aren't in Fairfax!' and we said: 'Yeah, you're missing the point,' " recalled Gordon.

The point is that Stafford, like Fairfax, wants to be linked to Washington, not so much in the minds of residents -- more than half of whom head north each day for work and have plenty of time in traffic to ponder where they are -- but for businesses.

County officials are particularly interested in companies that want to do business with the federal government and might be attracted by Stafford's lower rents and labor costs. Salaried jobs close to home are the Holy Grail in Stafford and points south -- Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania. They represent a ticket off the four-hour daily commute and back to a better life, officials say.

Now the job is to lure those companies.

As the definition of "suburban Washington" has seeped far beyond Fairfax and Montgomery counties, so have some government contracting jobs, upon which the region's economy is so reliant.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, defense contractors have become the fastest-growing segment of Stafford's economy, accounting for more than 5 percent of the county's 26,000 jobs. Officials predict that the share will be 10 percent within two years. When five office parks are complete, Stafford's office space capacity will go from 2 million square feet today to 7 million square feet, only 2 million less than Loudoun County's stock. Stafford officials expect most of it to be filled with government contractors.

Whether Stafford can transform itself from a bedroom community where most jobs are still in retail depends partially on road improvements that would convince Washington-minded businesses that 30 or 40 miles does not really mean two hours of exasperation on Interstate 95. It also depends on whether the government contracting world's definition of where "Greater Washington" ends can change, according to many in the industry.

"I can tell you none of my clients are looking in Stafford. The companies I work with in Northern Virginia don't say, 'Hey, will you do a cost comparison to Stafford?' " said Cathy Delcoco, an executive vice president with CB Richard Ellis, which as the region's largest commercial real estate broker finds office space for many government contractors.

That, Delcoco and others say, is because many contractors want to be close to the Capitol for lobbying purposes or close to the agency that hired them. Some major sites in the post-9/11 world are the Pentagon and two Fairfax-based agencies: the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates intelligence satellites, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which handles imagery satellites.

But some people believe that distance is not a deal-breaker.

A major selling point for Stafford is the cost of office space, with rents averaging $20 per square foot, said Tim Baroody, director of economic development. Rents go as high as the upper $30s inside the Capital Beltway and in Washington. Space costs $14 to $32 a square foot in Reston and $25 to $38 in Tysons Corner, Gordon said.

Henry Chapman, a real estate broker who represents many large defense contractors through Trammell Crow Co. in McLean, said contractors don't care as much about saving money on a few square feet as about being close to the agency that hired them. That could change if Northern Virginia rents get too high, he said.

Of Northern Virginia's 160 million square feet of office space, 20 million is available. The vacancy rate has fallen from 23 percent two years ago to 15 percent today, which pushes up prices.

Thirty-three government contracting firms work in Stafford -- up from about five in the mid-1990s. The oldest is Battelle, an international technology firm with 130 employees at its nine-year-old facility. Global firms BAE Systems and Northrup Grumman also employ a few hundred apiece in Stafford, but many of the contracting offices in Stafford have fewer than 10 employees. Among those is CTSI, a policy forecasting and technology development firm that incorporated last month.

Bill Millward, CTSI's president, said he was drawn by lower costs and higher "employee happiness" potential. "There are a lot of professionals here with degrees, a lot of smart people who are driving up 95 every day," Millward said. "Why not tap into that?"

Stafford has one geographic advantage: Quantico Marine Corps Base, the Marines' intellectual center, straddles Stafford and Prince William counties and is the region's largest employer.

Although Capt. Jeff Landis, a Marine Corps spokesman, would not say how much the base's annual budget has grown since 9/11, he noted that the Marines recently had launched a multimillion-dollar housing expansion.

Military spending in the region has increased. Defense Department procurement in the Washington area was $18.5 billion in fiscal 2003, up 16.4 percent from $15.9 billion the year before, according to a study by Stephen Fuller, a public policy professor at George Mason University. The Bush administration predicts that it will request $114 billion for Defense Department procurement for next year, up from $75 billion this year, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Snead Luck, a Richmond development manager with EDC, a company building one of the new Stafford office parks, said that he does not have any "hard facts" about the Marine Corps' resources for more contracts but that the firm feels confident enough to invest in 1 million square feet.

"The brokerage community in suburban D.C. keeps their ear to the ground, and they've been very supportive of the concept," he said.

Gordon noted a morbid selling point for Stafford.

"The feds are moving out there because it's beyond the blast zone," he said. "There is a need to be further from the city because you won't lose everyone at once."

Even as Stafford woos government contractors, officials say they do not want to rely too heavily on one sector of the economy. They also are trying to attract private high-tech firms and have written to dozens of associations, many now based farther north.

But for now, officials crafting the county's economic identity look around and see a theme: Quantico, the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, the Army training base Fort A.P. Hill, the Pentagon to the north, Hampton Roads to the south.

"We're going to work toward our strengths," Baroody said, "and our strengths are our proximity to regional bases."

Rod Nolan of MTC Services checks a retrofitted Humvee. Defense contractors have become the fastest-growing segment of Stafford's economy.