Two years ago, the race between two well-known candidates for Maryland's 4th Congressional District seat kept much of the state in suspense, and the outcome was not known until absentee ballots were counted days after the election.

This election season, however, stands in stark contrast. The Democratic victor in the 1986, Rep. Thomas McMillen, a former professional basketball player and Rhodes scholar who defeated the former House of Delegates minority leader Robert Neall, is running confident.

McMillen faces two challengers in Tuesday's Democratic primary: Edward B. Quirk Jr., 45, of Glen Burnie and John M. Rea, 27, of Annapolis. Neither has run for office before. Rea could not be reached for an interview for this story, and the address and telephone numbers he submitted with his filing papers are not valid.

There are two candidates in the Republican primary, Claude W. Roxborough, a Washington lawyer, and Patrick Lucky Stevens, who works for his family's gasoline stations. Stevens ran for Congress in 1986 but was defeated in the primary by Neall.

The district includes all of Anne Arundel County, the southern portion of Prince George's and parts of Howard. Although it has a high percentage of registered Democrats, the voters are known for crossing over to support Republicans, such as former representative Marjorie Holt.

Political leaders and the candidates said the campaigns have been low-key affairs so far, with no debates or forums. The other candidates have raised only a fraction of the amount in McMillen's war chest.

But the freshman congressman, who has raised $200,000 for his reelection bid, said he is campaigning vigorously. He has received the endorsements of a number of other House members, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

"Let's just say I don't have any more gray hairs to give away and I'm hoping to expand my margin this time," McMillen said. "I'm still running hard just like we did before."

"He's done well his first two years in office," said Sen. Frank J. Komenda (D-Prince George's). Komenda said, in particular, he is pleased with McMillen's work on issues such as assisting immigrants new to his district and advocating improvements of residential postal delivery in southern Prince George's County.

But McMillen also has been strongly criticized by black groups in the district for his endorsement of Sen. Albert Gore Jr.'s candidacy for president.

"That has irritated a lot of blacks," said Alfred Barrett, coordinator of Jesse L. Jackson's presidential campaign in the district. "A lot of blacks will not pass out McMillen's literature. He seems to think he doesn't need the blacks of Prince George's."

Barrett said, however, that there has been no discussion of throwing black support behind McMillen's opponents.

Jerry Grant, administrative assistant to McMillen, said he was not aware of the dissension among blacks. Grant said McMillen endorsed Gore in December because Gore is a friend of McMillen's and because Gore came to the 4th District to support McMillen when he was running for office.

McMillen said that much of his first term has focused on national issues such as federal cutbacks that affect his district. He said he is concerned that cutbacks will jeopardize Anne Arundel's economy with the National Security Agency in Fort Meade and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, both of which employ civilians.

Closer to home, McMillen said he is working on the future of the Chesapeake Bay and a light rail transportation system for business people who commute between Annapolis and Washington daily.

"These are the type of issues that hit home. People are concerned about the bay and the quality of life around them," McMillen said.

Quirk, an administrative assistant with Pepsi-Cola's regional offices in Baltimore, argues that he has more managerial and business experience than McMillen. He said McMillen was elected on his name recognition and not experience.

"He was elected on his basketball playing and the name that made him famous and that's it," Quirk said.

A graduate of the University of Baltimore, Quirk has centered his campaigning on trips to shopping malls where he introduces himself to shoppers.

Quirk, an avid supporter of day care, said that if elected he will encourage mothers who are on welfare but are able to work to participate in a day care training program in hopes of increasing the number of day care providers available to working mothers.

He said he would also encourage a program in which wealthy families could "financially" adopt poor families and claim them as a deduction on their tax returns. He said the program would have wealthy families depositing money in a supervised special account so that poor families could withdraw money as they needed for basic necessities.

In the Republican contest, Roxborough is seeking to raise his profile among voters.

"I realize I'm not a well-known person, but that is not the issue," said Roxborough, who was a Republican precinct captain in Temple Hills for the past five years.

Roxborough, 40, said that if he is elected to Congress, he will push for free trade zones in the Washington area and a high-speed light rail system between Washington and Annapolis. His campaign has raised more than $10,000.

Republican Bradlyn McClanahan of Annapolis, who filed for the election but withdrew Feb. 22, said he is supporting Roxborough.

Roxborough's opponent, Stevens, said he entered the race to bring attention to several issues, one of which he said is the need to prepare for war and natural disasters.

"This is different than a civil defense plan. I'm talking about getting Congress to explain to people the importance of stocking up on tangible objects like canned goods in preparation for something like war," said Stevens, 35, of Edgewater. He has spent no money on his campaign.