On the issues alone -- development, traffic congestion and city finances -- it's tough to tell the upcoming elections in suburban Maryland's five largest cities apart.

But add a splash of local color and elections in Takoma Park, Rockville, College Park, Annapolis and Frederick suddenly take on a character all their own.

In Annapolis, Republican Mayor Richard L. Hillman, who goes to work dressed as a vampire on Halloween, has been criticized by his opponent, Democrat Dennis Callahan, for promoting a laid-back style of government.

College Park Mayor Alvin J. Kushner's biggest opponent may be a cartoon caricature of himself, lampooning his style of government in a 56-page booklet printed by his opponent, V. Charles Donnelly, a 42-year-old lawyer.

And no election campaign has taken on a more surrealistic edge than Takoma Park's mayoral race.

Mayor Sammie A. Abbott, a feisty 77-year-old civic activist running for his fourth term, recently vowed at one candidates' night to go to jail to defend a proposed ordinance that would make the city a haven for Central American political refugees.

Opponent Steve Del Giudice has sharply criticized the mayor for spending too much time on global issues. But in a city that overwhelmingly supported a law declaring Takoma Park a Nuclear Free Zone, observers say Del Giudice may not be scoring many points.

Voters in the five cities will go to the polls on Nov. 5 to choose from among more than 70 candidates who are vying for mayoral offices or seats on their respective city councils.

If political opponents appear to go out of their way to make a point, that is because city residents rarely get excited about municipal elections. As a result, incumbents usually win.

In Frederick, 37 miles west of Washington, less than 20 percent of the voters turned out for the primary this year even though the city is facing critical problems with growth and traffic congestion.

Republican mayoral candidate Donna Lane, an accountant, has tried to capitalize on those issues. She has criticized incumbent Mayor Ronald Young for spending too much money on downtown redevelopment at the expense of fast-growing subdivisions on the edge of the city.

Republicans have also attacked Young's latest pet project, the downtown Carroll Creek park and flood control project, as a multi-million dollar boondoggle. Nonetheless, Young, who is credited with revitalizing the city, is expected to win a fourth term.

In the city's Board of Alderman races, Republicans William O. Lee, a retired junior high school principal, and Jon F. Kreissig, who has campaigned for support among Frederick's newer subdivisions, are given outside chances of unseating one of the board's five Democratic incumbents, according to observers.

In Rockville, where the races are non-partisan, mayoral candidates John Tyner II and Steve Van Grack have challenged incumbent Viola D. Hovsepian by claiming she has failed to provide leadership at a time when the city is facing unprecedented problems with growth.

Four City Council seats are being contested by two slates of candidates representing non-partisan factions and by two candidates running independently.

Hovespian, who heads one of the slates, takes credit for resolving a tough development fight over the 200-acre Westmont tract in south Rockville and for getting Rockville's downtown redevelopment back on track.

Despite those claims, opponents say problems still exist. To prove the point, Van Grack planned to go jogging in six lanes of rush-hour traffic on heavily congested Rockville Pike.

It's faster to run, he claimed, than it is to drive a car.