Four candidates are in the Democratic primary race for the 2nd District seat on the Prince George's County Council, but whoever comes in second could wind up the winner.

The scenario goes like this: incumbent Anthony J. Cicoria, facing trial Oct. 1 on theft, perjury and income tax evasion charges, squeaks through to victory in the Sept. 11 primary. But if he is convicted and has to vacate his seat, the primary runner-up would become the front-runner to replace Cicoria in this heavily Democratic district.

Or so the conventional wisdom goes in this bizarre match-up, which some of the candidates are calling a mix-up that never should have occurred.

The embattled incumbent, who quit and then reentered the race, has become an embarrassment to the Democratic Party establishment, including County Executive Parris N. Glendening, who would like to see him out of office.

But Glendening helped -- albeit inadvertently, he says -- ensure a splintering of the anti-Cicoria vote by declining to endorse either of two early hopefuls and recruiting a third candidate.

Challenging Cicoria are Stephen J. Del Giudice, mayor of Takoma Park; Doyle Niemann, a former Mount Ranier council member, and Margaret Malino, the mayor of University Park and Glendening's choice. All are Democrats.

Cicoria, 47, has been keeping a low profile. Earlier, he was trying to sell his house and secure a liquor store license in Florida, prosecutors said in asking for court-supervised probation pending the trial.

The two-term council member and his wife, Catherine, face trial in connection with the alleged personal use of $64,000 in campaign funds.

"Generally speaking, the feeling is Tony right now is having to work within the legal system, and it would help to have someone who is present be on the council," said Malino. "He's under a lot of stress."

Cicoria did not return a reporter's repeated calls. Nor has he been at any candidate forums. In late June, he announced his candidacy in a letter to his constituents. He also sent an old campaign brochure stressing his strong suit -- constituent service, which has won him a loyal following, especially among senior citizens in and around his home base of Hyattsville.

If Cicoria survives the primary but is convicted and sentenced before the general election, the Democratic Central Committee would appoint his replacement on the ballot. If he wins the primary and is convicted and then wins the general election, after his sentencing a special election would be held to fill his seat, probably early next year.

The whole business has bedeviled everyone except Cicoria, but especially candidates Del Giudice, 39, and Niemann, 43, who is director of corporate communications for Union Labor Life Insurance Co. Both had hoped for Glendening's endorsement.

"He encouraged me to run," said Del Giudice, a George Washington University law professor. "There was no discussion of any candidates other than Niemann and myself and Cicoria. Parris did not specifically say he'd support me."

Landlords lobbied against the Takoma Park mayor, who favors rent control. His recent efforts to join Takoma Park, which straddles the Prince George's-Montgomery county line, to Montgomery County also hurt him, although he said he's resolved "most of the problems" that sparked the "unification" drive and is now vice president of the Prince George's County Municipal Association.

Niemann's candidacy has become intertwined with that of state Sen. Decatur Trotter, who endorsed Niemann in return for his support against former state senator Tommie Broadwater. From Glendening's standpoint, a Niemann victory would make the council member beholden to a senator, an unacceptable outcome.

"I'm too independent and have too many ties to other parts of the community," Niemann said, seeking to explain opposition to his candidacy.

Malino, 48, joined the contest just a few days before Cicoria rejoined the race. The mayor of University Park, where the county executive lives, she is backed by organized labor as well as by Glendening, who has agreed to contribute $1,000 of her $6,000 campaign assessment to the Democratic Party ticket.

"There are three squeaky-clean individuals who care about good government," said Glendening. "It's part of the commonality of the whole challenge."

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face one of two Republican contenders, J. Lee Ball Jr., 59, of Hyattsville, an auto dealership manager whose father was the county sheriff from 1954 to 1962, or Sunday Abraham, 48, a former county school teacher and school administration critic from West Hyattsville.

But neither is given a chance in a district of 23,762 registered voters where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 4 to 1.

"I know I'm a Republican and an underdog," said Abraham, whose purpose in running, she said, is to improve the schools and "to get the people to think."

Should Ball come out on top, he says he plans to conduct his office just like his "personal friend," Cicoria. "I'm gonna run that outfit just like he's running it. I'm not gonna fire anybody. I don't want to be a hatchet man."