ORLANDO, FLA., JUNE 27 -- The political battle for control of the 1.6 million-member Teamsters union appears to have evolved into a two-man race between Ron Carey and R.V. Durham, with the old guard leaders of the East as potential spoilers for either candidate.

After nearly a week of nominations of candidates for national union office, it is clear that Durham hasthe support of a majority of the 1,900 convention delegates: enough votes to give him front-runner status going into an election with more people eligible to vote than there are registered voters in 26 states.

But it is also clear that his biggest competition in the first direct, secret-ballot election of officers in Teamsters history is Carey, the reform candidate with the fewest delegates at this week's convention.

The third major candidate for the Teamsters presidency is Walter Shea, generally viewed as the titular head of the union's old guard leadership, which has remained largely silent on many of the union reforms being proposed at the convention.

The union is under court order to hold government-supervised elections as part of a consent decree signed by the leadership two years ago to settle a major racketeering suit brought by the Justice Department. The election will be held in December.

Shea and Durham are both national vice presidents of the union, while Carey is the president of a United Parcel Service local in New York City and has the backing of the reform union group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

"By November and December, the Shea forces will not be a factor, except perhaps as a spoiler," Durham said today. "We clearly kicked their butt."

Carey and Ken Paff, who heads TDU, both agreed with that assessment, based on the balloting for candidate nominations at the convention.

If the Shea ticket does serve as a spoiler in the election, it is expected to hurt Durham the most, since few of Shea's supporters are expected to side with Carey.

At the start of the convention this week, Durham said he thought his main opponent on the convention floor was Shea but that his biggest opponent in the election campaign would be Carey, who has been campaigning at the grass-roots level for nearly two years.

Durham entered the convention with the most to lose. If he failed to get a majority, he would be seen as weak by the union leadership. If he showed delegate strength in the nomination of union officers, however, he could boost his standing with local union officials nationwide whose livelihood depends on picking a winner in this election.

Carey had little to lose in the convention. Armed with approximately 250 convention delegates, more than enough to win nomination, his only real role at the convention was to put the reform issues of his campaign before the convention and force Durham and Shea to deal with them.

"This is show time," Carey said today of the convention. The real election will be out on the campaign stump with the rank and file, he suggested. "That's where it's at," Carey said. He attacked both Durham and Shea as "born again" reformers.

Durham's appeal to the union rank and file remains untested. And it remains unclear how the actions taken by the convention will play in Durham's campaign.

Armed with new-found democracy under the government consent decree, the delegates -- themselves picked in federally supervised secret-ballot elections -- have voted a wide variety of changes long sought by TDU and incorporated in Carey's campaign.

Often casting aside candidate preferences, the delegates voted a range of reforms ranging from a doubling of strike benefits to the right to vote on their own local contract supplements in national trucking contracts, issues most other unions' rank-and-file members routinely get to vote on.

Carey will leave the convention taking credit for the reforms and will try to cast Durham as the candidate of old-guard obstructionists for either coming late to reforms or advocating lesser changes.

"This sleeping giant is now becoming awake," Carey said of the union membership. But he said his biggest enemy in the fall election campaign was apathy among a rank and file that has never before had a chance to vote directly for its leaders.