Democratic candidate Kathleen Matthews makes a point during a debate last month in Maryland’s 8th District congressional race. The seat is held by Democrat Chris Van Hollen, who is running for the Senate. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Democrats running for office in Montgomery County know they have to bring their A-game to Leisure World. The Silver Spring senior community of 8,000 is packed with active, knowledgeable voters who faithfully turn out for elections. It is a tough crowd, even for a seasoned politician.

Former news anchor Kathleen Matthews and wine retailer David Trone, two first-time candidates in the contest for Maryland’s 8th District Democratic congressional nomination, found out just how tough at a Valentine’s Day reception Sunday afternoon. Matthews and Trone, two of the three leading contenders in the April 26 primary, fielded two hours of often-blunt questions about their qualifications for office.

The skeptical tone was set by Democratic activist Paul Bardack, who asked Trone to explain the more than $150,000 he has contributed in recent years to state-level Republican candidates.

“Why does your nationwide support for right-wing Republicans translate to your desire to get the Democratic nomination here in Maryland?” he asked.

Trone, making his first appearance at a candidate forum since entering the race Jan. 27 with a vow to self-fund his campaign, is one of the Democratic Party’s most prolific fundraisers at the national level. He explained that the money to the GOP was simply the cost of doing business in many of the red states where his company, Total Wine & More, operates.

“My business interests are different than my personal interests,” Trone said, adding that he had “no connection whatsoever on a personal basis” with the Republican candidates. His only objective, he said, was to expand markets for his stores.

“If you want to get anything accomplished, you want anything done in the state of Texas or South Carolina or North Carolina — and all the things you’ve gotten done are very pro-customer and narrow focus — you have to work with Republicans and Democrats,” he said.

Others asked Matthews and Trone how, in the absence of legislative records, their merits as candidates could be assessed. And why, questioners wondered, hadn’t they paid their dues by starting political careers at the board of education or county council?

“We might not all have legislative records, but we have records,” said Matthews, a former WJLA anchor and Marriott executive. “Twenty-five years on television night after night covering your stories and gaining your trust.” She also spoke of her decade as a top communications and government relations executive at Marriott, during which, she said, she moved a good but conservative company toward more enlightened approaches to the environment and treatment of LGBT employees and customers.

Trone delivered probably his strongest response of the day, asking Leisure World residents, in essence: How have career politicians been working out for you?

“So maybe we might argue that it’s a good thing to be coming from outside the process and bringing some fresh ideas, some willingness to have change,” Trone said. “Change can be a really good thing. But if you just keep having the same old, same old, we’re going to get the same old results, which are deplorable.”

Another novice candidate, former State Department congressional liaison Joel Rubin, said that Trone, far from an outsider, was part of a broken political system.

“With all due respect, Mr. Trone, what you described in the beginning is exactly what is wrong with Washington,” Rubin said. “You do not need to be buying legislatures in order to get results. . . . You can make change in Washington if you fight for it. You don’t have to buy it.”

To the question of how she would support labor unions if elected, Matthews pledged to protect the right to organize, citing her membership in the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA, which merged with the Screen Actors Guild in 2012 to become SAG-AFTRA), and that of her husband, MSNBC’s “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, in the Directors Guild of America.

She also described herself as a “voice for unions” at Marriott, which has had rocky labor relations at some of its hotels.

Trone acknowledged that unions once played an important role “when businesses treated workers so unfairly.” But he said the 5,000 employees at Total Wine’s more than 120 stores have never been compelled to organize.

“We’re about family,” Trone said, describing the good pay, benefits and meritocracy that were the basis of his operation.

Questioning highlighted some differences among the candidates. State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (Montgomery) vowed to push for a “single-payer” health insurance system rather than work to improve the Affordable Care Act, praising the national model in France, where he lived for a year. Nonprofit executive David Anderson, echoing other candidates, said Raskin’s stance was unrealistic.

“In an ideal world,” the United States would have a single-payer system, Anderson said. “But we don’t live in an ideal world. . . . This isn’t France.”

All contenders explained how they would excel at constituent service and praised the District 8 incumbent, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) for setting the standard. Matthews — who mentioned that her husband has a call into his office because of trouble getting his Social Security check — again cited her work as a journalist and corporate executive. Del. Ana Sol-Gutierrez (Montgomery) said that she sponsored legislation to make driver’s licenses available to immigrants regardless of their legal status.

Del. Kumar P. Barve (Montgomery) said he was the first elected official to go to the Maryland Public Service Commission and hold Pepco accountable for its poor response to the 2012 derecho. Raskin, who said that “everything we do in office is constituent service” described his efforts to pass legislation allowing home delivery of wine, which drew a smile from Trone.

For the first time, the eight contenders (a ninth, Dan Bolling, was absent) were asked where they stood on the Democratic presidential race.

Gutierrez, Barve, Raskin and former Obama White House aide Will Jawando said they were undecided or not ready to endorse Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Trone, Matthews, Anderson and Rubin said they stood with Clinton.