Ask any cab driver here, and he'll tell you: The Bill Swisher-Kurt Schmoke political race is different.

It pits longtime city prosecutor William A. Swisher, a flinty white populist and tough-talking, law-and-order advocate against challenger Kurt Schmoke, a bespectacled black downtown Establishment lawyer, Rhodes scholar and one-time footbal star. It promises to be a razor-close, as well as a unique, contest.

Initially submerged in this industrial city's humdrum tradition of political clubs, bull roasts, crab feasts and candidates with unpronounceable ethnic names, the Swisher-Schmoke Democratic primary battle has bubbled noisily to the surface in recent weeks.

Among other things, the two men confronted each other in a verbal squabble on the street before whirring television cameras. Swisher beefed up police Protection around him after a Baltimore newspaper editoralist likened him to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, who originally said he would stay neutral, jumped into the fray and endorsed Schmoke.

"It's the one race that's sort of caught on in Baltimore," said Maryland state Sen. Julian L. Lapides. "It's added some sparkle to an otherwise lackluster election year." The winner becomes Baltimore's next chief prosecutor, since there is no Republican seeking the position.

The two combatants contrast widely from each other not only in the style and substance of their campaigns but in their constituencies and backgrounds.

Swisher, 49, the city state's attorney since 1974, finds the bulk of his strength in the blue-collar ethnic encalves of Baltimore, where he himself was born and where his call for stern law enforcement measures against unbridled criminals in the "jungle" of Baltimore streets has enormous appeal. The call has included the use of lethal force by private citizens under attack. Black leaders, including Schmoke, contend that this is a not-so-subtle appeal to racism.

A mainstay of Swisher's campaign has been a series of television spots costing $40,000, with a "fear stalks the streets" theme. They depict both black and white faces contorted with panic, followed by the appearance of Swisher sternly but comfortingly assuring viewers that he is on their side.

Swisher has no formal campaign headquarters but trundles around the city in a rented Winnebago van festooned with posters, a speaker blaring martial music from the roof as Swisher waves to pedestrians and periodically steps out to press the flesh.

Accompanied by his blunt-talking campaign manager, Sam Fonte, and a plain clothes Baltimore City police officer, Swisher urges passerby to reelect him, to rely on his experience and trust his pledge to smash crime.

Even Lapides and other political foes concede that Swisher has run his 123-member state's attorney's office relatively smoothly, considering its massive caseload and the chaotic city court docket. Impromptu and shoot-from-the- hip in style, the curly-haired Swisher follows no fixed schedule, roaming from street corner to crab feast to hotel luncheon.

"My schedule is kind of helter-skelter, I guess 'flexible' is a better word," he says. He seldom refers to his opponent and has consistently dodged efforts by Schmoke to debate him on television -- a tactic that many political observers say has hurt Swisher.

In contrast, Schmoke, 32, working from a well-staffed headquarters, has attempted to inject specific issues into the campaign, charging that Swisher has run a messy office with abusive plea bargaining, a lack of narcotics prosecutions and a policy of allowing his assistants to earn private outside income.

"The issue is leadership," says Schmoke, a former assistant prosecutor in federal court here. "Who's going to be the most effective in getting the most out of that office? The answer is me."

Two weeks ago, in an effort to show what he says is Swisher's ineffectiveness, Schmoke called a press conference to berate Swisher for not fighting the weekend release from a state mental hospital this summer of Charles Hopkins, the man found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1976 killing of a Baltimore City Council member and the wounding of two other persons in City Hall.

But Swisher, tipped off to the press conference, showed up in his campaign van and began conducting his own press conference on the sidewalk in front of Schmoke's headquarters. He contended that his office lacked authority to act until Hopkins petitioned for formal "preliminary release."

Schmoke came out onto the sidewalk, and the two candidates argued briefly before reporters and TV cameras, until Swisher climbed back into his van and left.

A product of Yale, Harvard Law School and Oxford University in England, where he was a Rhodes scholar, Schmoke methodically shuttles back and forth across the city, attending a crowded schedule of meetings, coffees and candidate forums, chatting amiably and easily with one and all. A fresh index card listing his round of daily visits is tucked in his shirt pocket each morning.

Schmoke, who was a White House assistant in the Carter administration, is on leave from the prominent Baltimore law firm of Piper & Marbury to run his campaign. He has raised about $100,000 some of it from well-heeled partners in his law firm as well as from liberal Maryland figures, including developer James Rouse and former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti.

Schmoke has spent relatively little money on radio and television commercials, relying more on public appearances and exposure in the city's three daily newspapers and on TV news.

He has won endorsements not only from the Baltimore Sun, Evening Sun and News American but also from the city's principle black paper, the twice-weekly Baltimore Afro-American.

Equally important, he has the blessing of Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), whose congressional district cuts a wide swath through black Baltimore. More recently, state Attorney General Sachs gave Schmoke a glowing public endorsement, cementing, in the words of Swisher campaign chief Fonte, Baltimore's "candy-assed limousine liberal" support for Schmoke.

Schmoke's strategy to unseat Swisher calls for winning the black and the white liberal vote that was split by two candidates in 1978 in a three-way race with Swisher. That year, black candidate Dwight Pettit and white liberal Anton Keating won a combined total of 55,000 votes, but left Swisher the victor with a plurality of 45,000 votes.

Now, says Schmoke, what he needs to do is combine the traditional black vote with that of "enlightened, good-government liberals," and he should win.

He acknowledges, however, that low turnout by blacks, a perennial problem, could jeopardize his plan. So a coalition of black ministers and other Schmoke backers is distributing "Remember Sept. 14." (primary election day) posters throughout black sectors of the city.

While Schmoke is running against Swisher, Swisher seems at times to be running more against the Baltimore Establishment, including the Sun papers, which consistently have opposed him.

"They've always tried to make me out as a racist and a redneck," said Swisher, "but that's just not true." Noting, for example, that his wife (from whom he is separated) is Japanese, he says the racist tag doesn't wash, "since I have an Oriental wife and two Eurasian kids."

The latest in a series of clashes with the Sun papers occurred last Tuesday when an op-ed page column in the Evening Sun described Swisher as a "virtual carbon copy of the early-day George Wallace," the one-time fiery segregationist governor of Alabama.

The author of the column, Sun editorial page editor Ray Jenkins, said in the column he was not implying that Swisher was an "unremitting apostle of racism" but that "his eagerness to 'educate' people about their right to self-defense in a crime-ridden society just might produce more violence . . . "

Swisher immediately called a press conference to denounce the column as "shocking and intellectually dishonest." He also said that he rejects the "public, private or political philosophies of George Wallace."

Asked later if Swisher's disavowal of Wallace might hurt his reelection effort in hardcore conservative pockets of Baltimore, Fonte said, "Well, if it does, that's tough."

Fonte added that the Jenkins column had caused Swisher to increase his police protection from one officer to three or four. "It's going to cause the kookies to come out of the woodwork and try to take a shot at him," Fonte said.

Swisher also blames the liberal establishment for falsely attributing to him a simplistic "shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later" rhetoric.

"I never said that," he snorts. "What I said is that, under the law of self-defense, which goes back . . . a thousand years to England, a person in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death has an absolute right to use whatever force is necessary to repel the attacker, including the use of deadly force.

"If you wake up in the night and there's a burglar in your bedroom, you have a right to use any kind of force to repel him . . . You don't need to enter in a philosophical discourse with him on his intentions."

One cloud continues to hang over Swisher. He was indicted in 1979 on political corruption charges and related federal tax fraud charges. He ultimately was acquitted of the corruption charges, and the government dismissed the tax case. Federal prosecutors had contended that legendary Baltimore political boss James H. (Jack) Pollack engineered Swisher's rise to the state's attorney position, in return for abuses of his office that included surrendering staff hiring decision to Pollack.