BALTIMORE -- Kurt Schmoke dribbled the ball a bit self-consciously, surrounded by bare-chested youths on a steamy inner-city basketball court while a campaign photographer fired away.

This wasn't his idea. Hampered by his street shoes and dressed in the requisite candidate's uniform of blue shirt, dark pants and red tie, Schmoke protested that basketball isn't his game. Shoot the ball, his advisers ordered. He drifted to where the foul line should have been painted. He lofted the ball toward the goal.

It hit nothing but net. "That was for the whole city," he said with a laugh.

It's just one more thing that has gone right in the Baltimore state's attorney's campaign to become the city's next mayor. The real politicking will begin next month, but some Schmoke supporters -- and some who are not -- say the outcome already is clear.

Although the 1987 mayor's race was supposed to be a roller coaster until the September primary, polls show Schmoke with a commanding lead over Mayor Clarence H. (Du) Burns, the former City Council president who was elevated to the top post in January when William Donald Schaefer moved after 15 years in City Hall to the governor's office in Annapolis. Although Schmoke's campaign manager, Larry Gibson, said that "anyone who doesn't respect an incumbent is foolish," he talks of gearing the campaign toward Schmoke's winning with a "mandate."

One thing that is certain is that the race will produce Baltimore's first elected mayor who is black. A well-respected white candidate who was expected to make the race close dropped out. Also fueling talk of a Schmoke runaway is that Burns' campaign appears to be in disarray, while the Schmoke organization rolls along.

Veteran city politicians warn that it is too early to declare Schmoke the winner. "It would be premature to say this race is over," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat and former Maryland House speaker from Baltimore. Voters have not fully focused on the Sept. 15 Democratic primary yet, Cardin says, and a number of important events in the campaign, such as newspaper endorsements, are far in the future.

And it is still not clear what role Schaefer will play in the race. It is no secret that he favors Burns and that there is bad blood between the governor and Schmoke. "Schaefer could become a key player," said Cardin, who adds that he plans to remain neutral in the race.

But even Burns concedes that Schmoke's fast start has created problems that are hard to overcome. "It is very apparent that {the polls} have hindered me from raising the kind of money you need to have to really put on a first-rate campaign," Burns said in a recent interview. "People like to be with what they feel is a winner."

It is something of a surprise that the race to replace Schaefer has drawn only two contestants in the Democratic primary, which, because of the party's 10-to-1 registration edge over Republicans, is tantamount to the general election. In this race, the racial tensions and divisions that have marked recent mayoral elections in other big cities will be missing.

The possibility of a white "spoiler" candidate was removed when former city housing director and school board chairman Robert C. Embry Jr. decided in March against entering the race. Political pros had speculated that Embry, a Schaefer favorite, could win the nomination by capturing the white vote while Burns and Schmoke split the majority black vote. Blacks account for more than 55 percent of the city's registered voters.

"I felt it was not healthy for the city and not likely that I could win," Embry said last week in explaining his decision to quit the race. Early polls had shown Embry running third even among white voters.

Schmoke and Burns are well-known and popular politicians who have each won citywide election. South Baltimore Democratic Del. Paul Weisengoff calls them "nonthreatening" to the white community.

But the similarities end there. Schmoke, 37, has the kind of credentials political consultants flip over: the home town boy who becomes star quarterback of a championship high school team, the first black senior class president at Yale University who goes on to win a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and receive his law degree from Harvard.

He had a job with a blue-chip Baltimore law firm, a stint at the Carter White House and experience with the U.S. attorney's office before Schmoke put together a grass-roots campaign in 1982 that ousted the conservative white state's attorney with the largest primary vote total in city history. Last fall, Schmoke won reelection without opposition.

Schmoke is still athletically trim and achingly clean-cut, and there's never been a hint of scandal in his professional life or his personal life with his wife Patricia, an ophthalmologist.

"To many people, he just represents the kind of future we want for Baltimore," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. (D-Baltimore).

Burns, 68, came up a different way. His career is anchored in the machine politics of East Baltimore, where by 1947 he had founded his own political club. For 22 years he handed out towels in the locker room at Dunbar High School. But in 1971, Burns helped put together a black and white coalition and was elected to the council.

Burns became a floor leader for Schaefer on the council, and with Schaefer's help he defeated two candidates and became president of the council in 1983.

"He couldn't go to Yale. He couldn't go to Harvard," said former state senator Harry J. McGuirk, a longtime power in city politics. "He couldn't go to the movies. He couldn't go to restaurants. Yet, he stayed with it, and now he's the mayor of Baltimore."

But it will be hard for him to remain in the job. A mid-April poll by The Baltimore Sun showed Schmoke leading 60 percent to 26 percent over Burns among those Democratic voters most likely to vote. Schmoke led among blacks, whites, men, women and every other demographic group.

While Burns has won praise for his performance as mayor, his campaign has been hit with dissension. A campaign coordinator selected by a committee that helps run the Burns campaign had to resign when The Sun reported that his business had defaulted on $470,000 in government loans and that the city had charged him in a civil lawsuit with fraud and malfeasance.

There also have been conflicts between Burns supporters who are Schaefer loyalists and Marie Henderson, Burns' longtime campaign manager.

Weisengoff says such obstacles can be overcome if the city's political organizations are mobilized to go to Burns' aid. A key to that will be Schaefer, Burns supporters agree.

The governor's dislike of Schmoke is legendary, and it intensified last summer when Schmoke made radio ads for Schaefer's Democratic opponent, former state attorney general Stephen H. Sachs. Schaefer has made it clear that he favors Burns, but he has been reluctant to get involved in the race, turning aside reporters' questions about the subject by saying he is "too busy" with affairs in Annapolis.

Most political observers expect Schaefer to help Burns, but the test, they say, will be how much Schaefer is willing to do.

Schmoke says that he is not concerned about the governor's role in the race and that he will continue with a campaign strategy that emphasizes grass-roots work in the neighborhoods and a media campaign focusing on Baltimore's future. Schaefer's emphasis on urban renewal has accomplished a dramatic physical change in the city, Schmoke said, but "people programs" have been neglected.

"I think there's a consensus developing that we have to do more for public education," he said.

Burns emphasizes his experience and says that Schmoke's ideas are not new. "Everything he's talking about, I've already done," he said.

Critics say that the candidates are glossing over city issues and failing to spell out detailed solutions, but it is unlikely that much of a dialogue will develop. Burns says he will stick to his decision not to debate Schmoke.

"Why should I?" he asked. "The difference between us should be clear to everyone."