As the first woman to lead a Montgomery County police department and its first female candidate for sheriff, Eileen Whalon Behr knows a thing or two about breaking down barriers.

But her nomination Wednesday to temporarily fill an office she's currently seeking at the ballot box crossed a line of a different sort, her electoral challengers said.

Gov. Corbett selected Behr, a Republican, on Wednesday to serve out the unexpired term of former Montgomery County Sheriff John Durante, who died of heart failure in February 2010.

The choice has proven controversial, though, as her two fellow candidates in November's election accused the governor of playing favorites in a closely watched race.

Giving the interim job to Behr mid-campaign gives her an unfair fund-raising and name-recognition advantage, said William A. Holt Jr., a former Abington detective and Democrat currently seeking the office.

"You would tend to think that in this short term it would make sense just to leave the position vacant," he said. "I had great respect for Sheriff Durante, and from what I knew of him, I doubt that he would have enjoyed seeing his office being used in a political gambit."

The Corbett administration did not return requests for comment on the timing of the nomination.

Behr - who must still be confirmed by a two-thirds vote in the state Senate - dismissed the criticism, welcoming her appointment as "quite an honor."

"I suppose it could give me inside depth and understanding into the job as we move forward," she said. "But I've been in public service for 35 years. For me, it's an opportunity to serve a broader base of residents."

Durante's death last year set off a round of speculation over who would succeed him after a decade in office.

While the Montgomery County Republican Party interviewed several candidates for the interim appointment, the position has sat vacant for more than 14 months since.

Behr, who retired as Whitemarsh police chief in March, was one of the first to put her name up as a potential replacement.

After beginning her career as a 19-year-old police dispatcher in Whitemarsh, she rose through the ranks from patrol and traffic safety to the detective force and eventually chief of police. Now 54, she until recently oversaw a 48-member department.

She officially declared she would run for the sheriff post outright earlier this year - well after she was in negotiations for the interim job, she said during an interview Wednesday.

But Robert Kerns, chairman of the Montgomery County Republicans, said that his party did not submit her name to the governor's office until members officially endorsed her for the 2011 GOP ticket in February.

That Corbett accepted their recommendation so late in the game now tilts the race in Behr's favor, Democratic Party Chairman Marcel Groen said. He vowed to urge local lawmakers in Harrisburg to block her confirmation.

"It shows a lack of respect for the process and for the voters of Montgomery County," he said. "This clearly is intended to have an effect both on the primary and general elections."

In addition to Holt, Behr faces a primary challenge from Robert J. Durante, a former deputy who is not related to the former sheriff. He did not respond to phone calls for comment Wednesday.

Should she be confirmed, Behr could take office only weeks before the May 17 primary vote.

"This was a row office that was held by a Republican, and you have an excellent candidate to fill it," said Kerns, the Republican chairman. "There's no reason the governor shouldn't have appointed her."

Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at (267) 564-5218 or at jroebuck@phillynews.com.