Lawyers, judges and influential members of the city's legal establishment have launched a not-so-quiet lobbying campaign as the race for chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court enters a critical period.

A week from now the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission, which last week announced the four candidates for the job, begins interviewing the candidates' judicial colleagues -- soliciting opinions that most commission members seem to agree may be a deciding factor in the commission's selection.

Unlike political campaigns in which public overtures and staged hoopla are the staple, this campaign operates behind the scenes in the secretive, genteel fashion held sacred by members of the bench. Such low-key decorum, however, does not make the debate any less vigorous, as lawyers and judges argue about what qualifications should be of primary concern to the commission and as they take sides over seniority, race, sex and administrative style.

"From now on the commission is just going to be deluged with requests to support one candidate or another," said Fred Abramsom, the president of the D.C. Bar Association and a former commission member. "This town has become very sophisticated with the lobbying process and they understand that they need to lobby the commission just like they'd lobby Congress -- and they'll do it."

The chief judge's vacancy on the 51-member court opened last month after the death of H. Carl Moultrie I, who presided for the past eight years. The Superior Court is the District's local trial court, the court where the majority of criminal and civil proceedings are adjudicated for District residents.

As the commission prepares to meet with the candidates' colleagues next week or receive their written comments, the two leading contenders appear to be Judges Fred B. Ugast and Paul R. Webber III, according to interviews with numerous judges. Judge Gladys Kessler also is considered a possible choice with strong support in legal and political circles.

Judge Ricardo M. Urbina, the fourth candidate who has been praised as an innovative thinker, may have difficulty overcoming his youth -- at 40, he is the youngest among the contenders by nearly a decade. Yet he, too, has substantial political community support and is expected to impress the commission with his "savvy," according to one judge.

Although few of the candidates are openly soliciting their colleagues' support (those who did dropped out of the race before the nominations were announced), many have heeded the commission's emphasis on collegial support and are making private overtures to other members of the bench, often with close associates acting as intermediaries.

"This is sensitive business amongst the judges," said one judge who requested anonymity, as did all others who were interviewed. "I used to think the campaigning would go on wholly outside the court with people who knew members of the commission. But now there is a subtle kind of campaigning going on within the court because there is a perception that what the judges think will be important."

None of the candidates, including three who have presided over divisions of the court, is considered unqualified, and as a result much of the lobbying centers on each candidate's strongest quality. And if an alignment is occurring, it is between Ugast and Webber supporters.

Webber, 52, who is one of the best-liked yet most private judges on the bench, was urged by a number of black leaders and the court's minority judges to enter the race when it appeared that there was not a senior black candidate to challenge Ugast. Although Ugast, too, is well liked and respected among the judges, some believe that a black should head the local court in a city that is 70 percent black.

The feeling was so strong among the coalition that Webber should have a show of unified support that at least one black candidate who wanted to run, 37-year-old Reggie Walton, was persuaded to drop out, according to sources. Webber's one weakness may be that he is the only candidate weho has not headed up a court division, although he has a strong following among many lawyers, black and white, who have tried major civil cases before him. Jack Olender, one of the country's leading personal injuries lawyers, has written a letter to the commission supporting Webber.

Ugast's supporters, surprised by Webber's candidacy, argue that Ugast has the broadest administrative credentials of the group and would be an important bridge between older and younger judges. Ugast, a prominent advocate of mental health reform, has held some of the court's most important positions, including the chairmanship of the centerpiece sentencing guidelines commission. He also was considered Moultrie's righthand man during the last couple of years.

Ugast, though, may run into difficulties because he lives in Maryland, a drawback with a few commission members who have argued privately that only D.C. residents should be considered. Ugast, however, has promised to live in the District if selected.

"Ugast has the respect of the entire court, and there is a sense that he has earned this position; but if he does not get the job by acclamation from the other judges , he will be hurt," said one of the bench's most respected judges.

Although it appears to be a Webber-Ugast race, some observers quickly point out that both Kessler and Urbina also have a chance.

"If I had to, I'd bet all my nickels in Gladys' basket," said one longtime court observer who is in regular contact with the commission and believes Kessler's being a woman will be a factor the commission will look favorably upon. A number of other judges interviewed said Kessler was their second choice.

Kessler, 48, is expected to draw extensive political support from her days as an activist in women's issues before she joined the bench in 1977. As head of the family division for four years, she left her "imprimatur all over the place," said one judge, and she is considered the most aggressive advocate among the candidates.

"Gladys does not suffer fools," said another judge, who said that may explain the absence of support of some judges. As chief judge, Kessler could be expected to make quick and forceful changes and open what some consider an essentially closed court system.

"What helps Gladys, though, may also hurt her," said one observer. "Some people think her activitism and strength is terrific. It polarizes others. Its like brussels sprouts: some people like them and some don't."

As a black Hispanic with strong community ties, Urbina may draw support from the same commission members as Kessler and Webber, many observers say. As head of the family division and a former law professor, Urbina has drawn praise from defense lawyers who view him as quick to act and compassionate in his sentences.

"Kessler and Urbina are such superb politicians in the best sense of the word," said one influential lawyer. "They are considerate and understand the need to have representatives from all sides involved in any decision."

Urbina, a former all-America college track star and still a long-distance runner, also has a following among younger judges and a number of lawyers who feel he welcomes innovation and would bring technological as well as procedural change to the court house.

"Urbina is very well regarded for how he handles relationships among people," said one person in regular contact with the commission.