Democratic congressional challenger Christopher Van Hollen Jr. said yesterday that he remains firmly opposed to capital punishment despite the sniper killings that terrorized the region, a view not shared by his opponent, Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.).

Although prosecutors are obligated under Maryland law to seek the death penalty in the attacks, Van Hollen said, he believes the law is wrong.

"My instincts are the same as anybody's. I'd like to drag these guys through the streets," he said. "If anybody could persuade me that the death penalty could save one innocent victim, I would support it. But I just don't see that."

Morella, however, said there "may be some egregious cases where that punishment should be available, but I think only as a last resort." In Congress, she has voted for bills requiring that anyone sentenced to death have access to DNA testing and adequate legal counsel.

She refused to directly answer whether the defendants should be put to death if found guilty. "I'd hate to jump to a conclusion when we haven't had the trial," she said.

Both candidates in Maryland's 8th District race addressed the issue in separate interviews after their last broadcast debate yesterday. With just five days before the election, they used the WTOP radio forum to take parting shots at each other in a race that polls show is dead even.

The outcome Tuesday will help determine which party controls Congress, and the candidates and their parties are wooing voters in Montgomery and Prince George's counties with a final barrage of political ads. Turning out supporters will be a key factor.

Although Morella and Van Hollen agree on many issues, Van Hollen opposes the Bush administration's tax cut package, and yesterday he again argued for a rollback of the estate tax repeal to free funds that could pay for prescription drug costs for seniors under Medicare -- something Morella has deemed too expensive.

For the first time, Morella said she might consider a rollback depending on the economy -- prompting Van Hollen to declare later that the eight-term incumbent again wants to have it both ways.

Once more, Morella defended ads she and the Republican Party are airing that attack Van Hollen. Her explanation yesterday was that the negative "tenor of the campaign" began when the Democratic-led legislature redrew the district to make it even more Democratic. She called the move a crass and overtly partisan attempt to oust her.

Van Hollen struck back. Morella may not like this year's redistricting, he said, but she didn't have a problem 10 years ago when redistricting benefited her by moving heavily Democratic portions of eastern Montgomery into another district. "At the time, she said she was ecstatic," he noted.

Morella said later that the difference this year is that no congressional district is contained within the county.

Morella hammered Van Hollen after he repeated his support for statehood for the District of Columbia. Morella supports only full voting rights for District residents, as do many suburban officials, who fear that statehood would allow the city's leaders to impose an income tax on commuters who work there but live in surrounding areas.

In a press release last night, Morella followed up with a bipartisan list of local House members who oppose statehood. That Van Hollen does not understand its implications "is quite telling and disturbing," she said.

The Van Hollen campaign reacted immediately, with manager Steven Jost saying Morella was "reaching into the Republican Halloween scary tricks bag. . . . Raising this issue at the last minute is intended only to scare voters with bogus threats of taxes. Chris's principled position is the District is not a colony."