TAKOMA PARK -- With 20 contenders clamoring for attention, choosing a congressional candidate will be tough this year in Maryland's new 4th District.
But for the switched-on residents of this progressive enclave, the sight of all these candidates lining up for questions and answers is political red meat.
"This gives us an opportunity to get in on the ground floor, to let the candidates know our progressive views. Our concerns are very strong," says Sue K. Wheaton, a resident who turned out last week to hear the Democrats make their pitch.
The candidates walked into City Hall past an environmentally conscious art exhibit called "Reflections of a Space Age Mama."
They passed a flier announcing vacancies on the city's Nuclear Free Zone Committee for applicants with "expertise in science, research, finance, law, peace and ethics."
On top of the nearby library, they may have spotted a herd of pasteboard cows -- one for every cow the city buys for Santa Marta, its sister city in El Salvador. Another cow goes up on the library every time another $1,500 is raised.
During the Democratic forum Wednesday, 12 of the 13 Democrats presented their credentials and answered questions late into the evening. For them, 1992 represents a rare political opportunity -- a chance to run for Congress in a dis- trict with no incumbent.
They all want to become the incumbent, and for good reason. Although voters are rumbling against those in office, incumbents still are tough to unseat, and this election could produce an instantly entrenched leader.
From the candidates' viewpoint, the winner can reasonably anticipate a long sojourn on nearby Capitol Hill.
All the more reason for Ms. Wheaton's determination to know the candidates this year.
The leading contenders, all Democrats, appear to be Prince George's County State's Attorney Alexander Williams Jr., Prince George's County state Sen. Albert R. Wynn, Prince George's County Councilwoman Hilda R. Pemberton and Montgomery County Del. Dana Lee Dembrow.
The race has attracted other interesting candidates, but it could become a two-person race between Mr. Wynn, a well-regarded legislator who has raised the most money, and Mr. Williams, the first black elected to countywide office in Prince George's.
They're playing in a new arena created last year when the state reconfigured its eight congressional districts to reflect the 1990 census. But the 4th District is even newer than the other seven because it's a voting-rights district -- set up so that the district would have a better chance of electing a member of a minority group to Congress.
Sixty-four percent of the new district's residents are minorities, including a relatively high percentage of Hispanics and other immigrant groups.
The 4th is now an L-shaped affair situated along the eastern and northern boundaries of Washington. In addition to Takoma Park, part of which lies in both counties, the district includes parts of Silver Spring and White Oak in Montgomery County, and Cheverly, Landover, Hyattsville, Capitol Heights and Largo in Prince George's.
About 100,000 residents of the district live in Montgomery County and are represented by Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md-8th. The rest of the district is represented by either Rep. Steny H. Hoyer or Rep. Tom McMillen -- both of whom were drawn into other districts.
While about 20 percent of the population lives in predominately white Montgomery County, that 20 percent could produce a disproportionate percentage of the districtwide vote, and politicians see it as critical territory. White voters could represent as much as 50 percent of the turnout, campaign staff members and others say.
"Whoever does well here in Montgomery could walk away with it," said Roy L. Dabney, one of Ms. Pemberton's finance directors.
Ms. Pemberton was introduced as a member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the National Council of Negro Women and the Southern Maryland Health Systems Agency.
Offering her views on crime, one of the campaign's major issues, Ms. Pemberton had a message that might have been tailored to this thicket of activism.
"We need a commitment from the community and the family. Unless we make a commitment, it is not going to go away. If we are going to take back the streets and take back the community, you and I are going to make the difference," she said.
Each of the candidates had proposals for coping with crime and the economy.
Ms. Pemberton said she favors a community reinvestment strategy that would put people back to work, fast implementation of a federal transit jobs bill and more housing construction.
Mr. Wynn listed banking reform at the top of his economic priorities.
"People still can't borrow to start business. Regulations are too restrictive, capital requirements are too high so there is too little growth for new businesses," he said.