Monday morning at Montgomery Mall in Bethesda. The "anchor" stores don't open for 23 minutes, but already the corridors are filling fast.

Forty people cluster in the food court, obviously waiting for stores to lift their locked gates. There's a line at the Vie de France croissant-and-coffee shop. Two women peer through the darkened windows of Hecht's, eager to spend.

An hour later, 15 miles east, at Landover Mall in Prince George's County. The floors are just as clean and the piped-in jazz is just as mellow. But there are almost no customers.

In the exercise equipment area of Sears at Landover, employees chat about TV shows of the previous night. In the children's section of Hecht's there, a saleswoman fluffs up the sweaters. Then, for something to do, she fluffs them up again.

About 30 percent of the square footage at Landover Mall is unoccupied, because stores have failed. Others seem poised to join them. At 10:36, the women running the ground-floor jewelry cart say they haven't had a customer all day. At 10:45, there are no customers inside Kid City, Lady Foot Locker or BBQ King.

Montgomery and Prince George's counties have long been rivals in the arenas of style, politics and status. But for several years, they have battled over shopping centers, too.

Montgomery is winning by about 15 lengths.

Montgomery Mall is one of the most popular shopping malls in the world. Its Nordstrom store routinely draws day-tripper customers from as far away as New Jersey and North Carolina, as well as big spenders from all around the Washington area.

Although White Flint Mall and Wheaton Plaza have struggled, their parking lots are still full more often than empty. Meanwhile, Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg and smaller malls along Interstate 270 are blossoming.

In Prince George's, however, the major malls don't measure up.

None offers a large upscale retailer. None grosses anywhere near as much as malls in Montgomery. As a shopping center executive put it, Montgomery is Bloomingdales, Nordstrom and Ann Taylor. Prince George's is Target, Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

Ever since Prince George's became the home of choice for wealthy black families in the 1980s, the question has bubbled up regularly: Are the slick stores avoiding Prince George's because of race? Or are they avoiding Prince George's because they know that black residents who can afford it are already shopping at slick stores in Montgomery, Tyson's Corner and Pentagon City?

Developers say race has nothing to do with the lack of blockbusting anchor stores in Prince George's. They say that the only color that matters is green.

Yet the Lerner Corp., which owns Landover Mall, has done little to resuscitate it. At the same time, Lerner invested more than $100 million in Dulles Town Center, a new mall in Loudoun County -- even though median household income in mostly white Loudoun trails median household income in majority-black Prince George's.

Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) told me not long ago that his county would be an unquestioned jewel anywhere else in the United States. If you picked it up and airlifted it to, say, Missouri, Prince George's would rival Kansas City or St. Louis in terms of purchasing power, Curry pointed out.

He pronounced himself "perplexed" by the absence of big-ticket retailers from Prince George's. But he was not ready to lay it all at the door of racism. Curry said it made more sense to try to fix the problem than to curse those who caused it. He pointed out that the Prince George's Economic Development Corporation has made great strides.

Joseph J. James, EDC's president, said that even if a Nordstrom suddenly appeared in Prince George's, that would not solve the real problem. It is "not until recently that Prince George's County focused on economic development in a strategic way. There needs to be a very comprehensive strategy," he said.

James pointed out that you stand a better chance of attracting high-end retail if you also attract high-end business. His retail marketing committee has launched a "Discover Us" marketing effort, arranged incentive packages for new and relocating businesses and helped obtain an $11 million federal loan for distressed neighborhoods. Overall, James and his organization have helped smooth $134 million in new investment in the county in the last 18 months. The result is 4,500 jobs created or retained.

Meanwhile, new malls are under construction in Bowie and Greenbelt. New Carrollton Mall is undergoing renovation and adding a movie theater. And Ben and Jerry's, the legendary ice cream company, has announced that it will soon open a franchise in Prince George's (though the company has not said where).

Still, none of this is Macy's or Saks Fifth Avenue. Otis Ducker, president of the Shop Where You Live Coalition, smells prejudice.

"It makes me angry when upscale retailers and fine dining boycott" Prince George's, he said. His group urges a boycott of businesses that could move to Prince George's, or open a branch there, but don't. Ducker says that Prince George's in general -- and its black residents in particular -- will never get the kinds of stores they deserve otherwise.

Tomorrow: It might be history, not race.