"How badly will Neal Potter lose his bid to oust incumbent Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer?" That's the hottest question in Montgomery County these days.

Pundits claim the gap will be 20 points, maybe even 30 points, but they can't help casting nervous glances across the Potomac, to where Audrey Moore presides over the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

There, three years ago, Moore's "slow growth" message crushed pro-development incumbent Jack Herrity. In what Herrity's media consultant called "a tidal wave against development," Moore carried 162 of the county's 168 precincts.

Now the pundits are privately wondering if "it can happen in Montgomery"? The answer is "yes."

Sid Kramer and Neal Potter are tough, savvy politicians who were both elected to the county council in 1970. But that's where their similarities end.

Kramer is a hard-nosed, self-made millionaire who dropped out of college to start his first business, a car wash.

Potter is a mild-mannered research economist who spent his career collecting academic degrees, writing, teaching and working for think tanks.

It's Montgomery County's version of Archie Bunker vs. Mr. Rogers:

Kramer likes to play with his grandchildren. Potter is an ardent bird-watcher.

Kramer belongs to the Silver Spring Rotary Club. Potter is a member of the World Federalists Association.

Kramer prizes loyality and consensus politics. Potter's political loyalties wander wherever his intellect carries them.

When asked to list their "connections" in Annapolis, Kramer names the state's top politicians; Potter names the top bureaucrats.

But nothing separates Kramer and Potter more than their disagreement about growth, traffic and what Potter calls "overdevelopment" -- the same issues that separated Jack Herrity and Audrey Moore.

Comparing elections, especially elections in different states, is risky, but in this case the parallels are compelling.

Audrey Moore and Jack Herrity were both elected to the Fairfax Board of Supervisors in 1971.

Herrity, the son of an elevator repairman, parlayed his strong pro-growth sentiment into three terms as chairman, while Moore became lonely voice against Fairfax's booming development.

By 1987 the county was choking on traffic and discontent. Herrity's claim that its quality of life was "the envy of people throughout the country" fell on deaf ears along with his attempts to brand Moore a "loose cannon," a "flip-flop artist" and an ineffective, out-of-step legislator ("she couldn't get a second to go to the bathroom," he chided.)

In Fairfax the stage was set for a referendum on growth.

Moore was the voters' arrow, and Herrity was their target. Nothing else really mattered. As one analyst put it, the election was over the day the traffic lights in Jack Herrity's neighborhood reached level "F" service (a three-cycle delay to get through).

Is Montgomery County headed for a similar sea change in 1990? Very possibly.

A Montgomery County government poll released in January found residents overwhelmingly identified traffic and overdevelopment as the county's most pressing problems. And a 1988 ballot referendum, "Question F," was almost defeated when it became a vehicle for antigrowth sentiment.

In Maryland's Sept. 11 primary, Potter may well play the role of Audrey Moore while Kramer plays the Jack Herrity part.

If so, the election would be like the Battle of New Orleans, fought two weeks after the treaty of Ghant was signed, ending the War of 1812. Frightened banks and the failing economy are already shutting down the development industry.

Growth was an issue for the 1980s -- recession is the issue of the early 1990s. Pick up the financial page. Office buildings are half empty, housing prices are falling, developers are going bankrupt and banks are losing money. That's not a growth scenario.

Politicians and voters are about to discover that real estate and defense, the cornerstone industries of suburban Washington's so-called recession-proof economy, are both in decline. The chain reaction of layoffs and cutbacks is already eating its way through the region's economy.

Before long prosperity will replace traffic congestion as the chief public concern. And the challenge facing the next Montgomery County executive won't be how to limit growth but how to bring it back.

Blair Lee is the president of a Silver Spring development firm.