In a topsy-turvy election year in Prince George's County, incumbents at the top of the ticket are facing little serious primary opposition, but usually secure County Council and state legislative seats are up for grabs.

"The real battles this time are down in the trenches," said County Executive Parris Glendening, as the deadline passed Monday night for candidates to file for the Sept. 11 primaries.

This unusual state of affairs has left the fractious candidates to compete not only for votes but also for endorsements from the likes of Glendening. "A lot of conversations are clearly continuing," Glendening said. "There are a lot of hard choices to make. The key decisions will come together between now and July 12," the deadline for candidates to withdraw from the primary contests.

The emerging races pose some tantalizing quesitons. Among them:

Will Anthony J. Cicoria -- the on-again, off-again incumbent council candidate facing trial on charges of theft and tax evasion -- survive his greatest political challenge? And will any of the challengers drop out and unite behind the strongest contender?

Will Council Chairman Jo Ann T. Bell withstand a serious challenge from Bennie Thayer, a leading figure in the county's Rainbow Coalition?

Will former state senator Tommie Broadwater overcome the stigma of his felony conviction for food stamp fraud and unseat Decatur W. Trotter, the man who succeeded him in the 24th District?

Who among four contenders will succeed Floyd Wilson now that the county council member has stepped down to challenge Glendening? And what kind of showing will Wilson make against the two-term incumbent?

Will the heavily outnumbered Republicans, who had to run newspaper ads to attract candidates, get enough votes to win at least one elected office?

"Our problem in the county is not having too many candidates but too few," said Richard T. Davis, chairman of the Prince George's Republican Party. "We do not have a single officeholder in an elected partisan position. The odds are against you, but it's challenging. You can only go up."

There are 58,590 registered Republicans compared with 183,791 Democrats in the county. Davis is not despairing, however. He says that voter registration is close to even, for instance, in Laurel, where he lives, and fairly close in Bowie.

But as politicians come together to wheel and deal in the formation of slates, it is the Democratic primary that generates the most interest. Candidates try to run with the top of the ticket, making Glendening a key player.

In the Cicoria race, challengers Stephen J. Del Guidice and Doyle Niemann sought Glendening's endorsement, only to see him recruit another candidate, Margaret Malino, the mayor of University Park, where he lives.

"Obviously, the fewer candidates the better," Niemann said. "I never counted on {Glendening's} support. I have no intention of getting out."

In the race to succeed James Herl, who left the council after pleading guilty to cocaine possession, Glendening is backing Anne MacKinnon, appointed to the seat after Herl resigned, over four other candidates.

However, the limits of the county executive's political power were apparent in the council's increasingly black 6th District. Glendening, seeking more minorities on the council, had asked incumbent Bell to run instead for a delegate seat. She refused, and he is backing her reelection anyway.

In the 4th District, Glendening said he is "leaning heavily" toward incumbent Richard J. Castaldi because of the council member's legislative support of the county executive's agenda. But Castaldi, who is from Greenbelt, is not a shoo-in. Castaldi's challenger is G. Frederick Robinson, a county police officer who also is a Bowie City Council member and is backed by the Bowie political establishment and by state Sen. Leo Green (D-Prince George's). The election could pit the candidates' two towns against each other.

The legislative race in the 26th District may turn into a referendum on abortion. Del. Gloria Lawlah, an abortion-rights advocate, is attempting to unseat longtime Sen. Frank J. Komenda, an abortion opponent.

In the 25th District, Sen. Albert R. Wynn (D-Prince George's) is being challenged by Del. Juanita D. Miller (D-Prince George's), who decided to take on the incumbent after Wynn dropped her from his slate for what he called "philosophical differences."

The post of clerk of the circuit court is open with the retirement of Norman L. Pritchett. The Democratic primary contest pits Rosie Cobb, backed by State's Attorney Alex Williams (D), against Shirley Hill and Vivian Jenkins.

There also are nonpartisan contests for two school board seats in the wake of decisions by board members Paul R. Shelby (District 5), a Bowie lawyer, and Angelo I. Castelli (District 8), a four-term member, not to run again. Castelli, an Oxon Hill lawyer, is running for a judgeship on the county orphan's court.