ANNAPOLIS -- Suspense has never been a trademark of the Anne Arundel County Council. The Democratic Party's 20-year lock on its seven seats has made most of the lawmaking body's votes unanimous, collegial affairs. As part of a government structure that cedes most of the power to the executive branch, its members initiate few major pieces of legislation.

So it is that in an election year in which there are three open council seats and a record number of challengers trying to unseat veteran incumbents, a rare mood of uncertainty has settled over the council offices in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 11 primary.

From the blue-collar neighborhoods of Glen Burnie, where five Democrats and two Republicans have been sparring about the noise from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, to the waterfront communities of Annapolis, where two determined Republicans are fighting for the right to challenge a Democratic councilwoman over government spending policies, Anne Arundel's 176,500 voters are being offered the promise of political change.

A total of 35 candidates are waging campaigns in the seven councilmanic districts, with 22 of them seeking the three vacancies created by two incumbents' decisions to run for county executive and a third officeholder's choice to leave politics altogether. Three of the four incumbents seeking reelection have opponents in the Democratic primary as well.

Although at least two of the council members are expected to win their primaries without too much effort, all but one of the incumbents will have Republican opponents waiting for them afterward. The strong candidacy of Republican Robert R. Neall in the county executive's race has made more than a few GOP candidates hopeful they will be able to catch a ride on Neall's coattails in the general election; registered Democrats number 97,562 in the county while 64,386 registered voters are declared Republicans.

No where is this optimism more evident than in the 5th Councilmanic District, which stretches from the communities on Annapolis's eastern border through Arnold to Severna Park.

When two-term Democratic council member Carole B. Baker decided this year not to run for reelection, it was a sign to many Republican leaders that they finally had a shot at breaking the Democratic Party's two-decade-long monopoly. Not only does the 5th District have one of the highest concentrations of Republicans in the county, but it is also home to many Democrats who have shown a willingness to cross party lines.

"Having Bob at the top of the ticket is a very positive thing," said Diane R. Evans, 41, a former Neall aide who is one of two Republicans seeking the nomination to represent the 5th District. "It is creating a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the candidates who hope to work with him."

Many observers see Evans, who has twice before sought political office in Arundel, as the heavy favorite in the Republican primary election over Andrew L. Buettner, 55, a salesman. As of Aug. 14, Evans had raised twice as much money as any other candidate in the district.

On the Democratic side, eight candidates are seeking the nomination to succeed Baker and observers say no one candidate appears to be leading at this point. Baker said she believes that the race will be close but that the leading contenders are the two women candidates -- Linda Gilligan, 38, a former hospital administrator, and Mary Harris, 62, a member of the county board of zoning appeals who recently switched parties to run for office.

The other Democratic candidates are A. Michael Bohle, 44, a corporate travel manager; Robert J. Cancelliere, 55, a retired IBM consultant; Edward M. Doyas, 31, a hotel supervisor; Michael L. May, 31, a lawyer; John W. Russell; and Eugene F. "Jack" White, 51, a budget director of the Anne Arundel County public schools.

According to Harris, voters in the water-rich district are intensely concerned about repeated sewage spills into local rivers and creeks from county pumping stations. Another major issue that has divided the district is a controversial road from Severna Park to Millersville.

The race in Arundel's 2nd Councilmanic District, which includes Glen Burnie and other Baltimore suburbs such as Hanover and Severn, has also generated special interest because of the large number of respected candidates running to succeed council member Michael F. Gilligan, who is leaving his post to run for county executive.

The Democratic candidates include Charles Eckman, 68, a retired National Basketball Association coach and sportscaster; George Johnson, 60, a county recreation supervisor; Daniel Klosterman, 45, an accountant and former county auditor; Edward Middlebrooks, a Glen Burnie lawyer, and Joseph Procaccini, 48, a Loyola College economics professor. The Republicans are Michael Serabian, 35, a management trainer, and Ernest Michaelson, 55, an environmental consultant.

Growth is not as big an issue in Gilligan's district as it is in the rest of the county largely because it was mostly developed long ago. According to several candidates, a stalled urban renewal effort in downtown Glen Burnie, improved police and fire protection, and increased recreational opportunities for youths form the core of voters' concerns.

In the last open seat contest, the 1st District, which encompasses the northernmost area of Anne Arundel and is closest to Baltimore, three Democrats and two Republicans are vying for the nominations to succeed council member Theodore J. Sophocleus, who is resigning to run for county executive. As in Gilligan's district, the noise from jets taking off and landing at BWI bothers many residents in the 1st District, as does the perception that their schools are lagging behind those in other parts of the county in programs and facilities.

On the Democratic side, many observers see George F. Bachman, 69, who represented the district for 14 years before Sophocleus, as having a tremendous advantage that will be hard for the other candidates to overcome. Bachman is running on a slate with state Sen. Michael J. Wagner, the dean of Democratic politics in Anne Arundel. His Democratic opponents are August L. Lundquist and John C. Stokes Sr., 42, a grocery store manager.

The two Republican candidates, James E. Sakers, 63, a retired naval officer, and Gerald P. Starr, 49, a financial administrator for Westinghouse Electric Corp., have been campaigning hard as well.

Of the incumbent council members, Edward C. "Buddy" Ahern Jr., 51, a Pasadena Democrat who has represented the 3rd District since 1974, faces the most challenging primary. Four Democrats have lined up to unseat Ahern, complaining that he has a high absentee record from council meetings and that he is inaccessible.

Ahern's chances of being defeated were increased this week when one of the Democratic primary candidates, Susan Pogue, a Pasadena civic leader, said she was throwing her support behind one of her rivals, Thomas Henderson, 56, an account manager for Sears, Roebuck & Co. who has also been endorsed by the Baltimore Sun. Pogue said her decision to bow out of the race and narrow the field of candidates was made to improve the odds that Ahern will be voted out of office. The other Democratic candidates are Peter Cooper and William R. Jahnigen.

In the 4th District, which includes the heavily congested areas of Crownsville, Odenton and Millersville, incumbent David G. Boschert, 43, has been challenged in the Democratic primary by Edwin Bell, 47, a county central services employee. Although Bell has campaigned on the theme that Boschert has not done enough to prevent residential development from overwhelming the district, many area civic leaders are supporting the six-year councilman. The district does not have any Republican candidates.

In the race to represent the Annapolis area, or the 6th District, two-term council member Maureen Lamb, 68, does not have a Democratic primary opponent. Two Republican candidates -- Glenwood Gibbs, 62, a retired cartographer, and Patrick J. Ogle, 42, a former county police sergeant now working in real estate -- are in a tight race to determine who will run against Lamb in the general election. Both candidates have been trying to attract votes by capitalizing on voters' concerns over rising tax bills.

"People I talk to are just upset about this excessive government spending and when I tell them I've never before held elective office they say good because they don't plan to vote for any incumbents," Ogle said.

In the 7th District, which includes Crofton and most of southern Anne Arundel's countryside, four-term incumbent Virginia P. Clagett, 47, the council's chairman, is expected to win easily over her one primary opponent, Patricia O'Brien, 56. O'Brien, a civic leader, has run against Clagett at least twice before and lost. Two Republicans, John Klocko, 33, a Washington lawyer, and William Alan Boehm, 32, a farmer, are competing in the primary to challenge Clagett, saying that county spending is out of control and the Democratic monopoly needs to be broken.