EL PASO, Texas (AP) _ A woman with two small children who is running for election to a judgeship says she's surprised her opponent has made motherhood an issue in their campaign.

District Judge John McKellips raised the issue at a sheriff's deputies' meeting while comparing his qualifications with Mary Anne Bramblett's.

Bramblett, an assistant county attorney, has less than six years experience as a lawyer and is seeking to become the county's first female state judge. Because there is no Republican candidate, the winner of their March 8 Democratic primary will capture the 41st District judge's seat.

The incumbent judge suggested Bramblett and other mothers should stay home with their young children.

''She had to take some time out for maternity leave to have two small children, so I don't know how much time she's actually spent working as an attorney,'' he said Wednesday night.

The judge also linked absent mothers to the problem of overcrowded jails and prisons.

''What do we do (about crowded prisons)? Well, we can start in our homes,'' he said. ''Mothers can stay home and raise their children during the formative years.''

The judge continued the theme Thursday in an interview with the El Paso Times.

''No one who will be truthful will deny the importance of a mother being with children during pre-school years,'' he said. ''Other persons may try to substitute and mean well, but there's no substitute for a mother's love.''

The judge's views were surprising, Bramblett said.

''Everybody got the clear message that (McKellips believes) I am not qualified to be a judge because I'm a woman and a mother,'' said Bramblett, whose children are 3 and 4 years old.

The judge's comments to the sheriff's deputies association were made in the context of crime rates and the cause of crime, he said.

''I acknowledge it would have been more correct to have used the term 'parent' rather than mother,'' he said in the Thursday interview. ''The whole point of this discussion is a breakdown of parental guidance in the home, whether that breakdown is the fault of the mother or the father.''

He said, ''As a district judge, one never has a normal life. To do your job properly requires long hours and extra devotion, and she would have less time as a judge to be with her family than she has had in the past. It appears that Mrs. Bramblett's personal ambitions are more important to her than the lives of her children.''

''It's not true,'' Bramblett said. ''I think my children have a very good role model to look up to, both myself and my husband.''