When Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) rose to address a Methodist congregation in Forrestville a few nights ago, he had the pulpit to himself. His Democratic primary opponent, Abdul Alim Muhammad, was not in the sanctuary, and no one mentioned the absent challenger's name.

But it was impossible to overlook Muhammad -- the first black to challenge Hoyer, who is white -- in almost every sentence Hoyer spoke.

Hoyer told the small, predominantly black congregation the story of his life: youngest-ever president of the Maryland Senate, election in 1981 to the House of Representatives, rapid rise to the inner circle of the House's Democratic leadership and a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Hoyer reminded the crowd that in 1966, two years before segregationist George C. Wallace carried Prince George's County for president, he campaigned against housing discrimination. Paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr., Hoyer asked to be judged on "the content of my character," not on the color of his skin. As he hammered home his support for civil rights legislation, Hoyer proclaimed, "I don't just talk that talk; I walk that walk."

As Democrats in Maryland's 5th Congressional District prepare to vote Sept. 11, Hoyer is taking the same message to them in person and in television comcercials.

Muhammad, national spokesman for the Nation of Islam and itsleader, Louis Farrakhan, alleges that Hoyer has failed to adequately represent his district's growing number of blacks, who make up close to half of the district's population. Hoyer counters that he has consistently supported the interests of blacks, and that his legislative clout has improved life for all his constituents in Prince George's County.

The campaign has left Hoyer confident but uncomfortable. By every conventional political measure he appears to be leading Muhammad, and he has predicted he will win the primary handily. But in a recent interview he also said he has found dealing with the emotional issue of race troublesome.

"It's frustrating and I find it disagreeable," Hoyer said. "It's alien to my 24 years in public life.

"I'm white, and that's an issue I have trouble denying. But I reject the premise that this {election} ought to be based on race . . . . Merit ought to be considered. Doing the right thing ought to be considered."

At church that night, Hoyer's message appeared to find its mark. In only five minutes he had heads nodding and appreciative chuckles going in the pews. After he spoke, Del. Juanita D. Miller (D-Prince George's) hugged Hoyer and told him, "I'm going to see about having you ordained." Miller is running against an incumbent state senator whom Hoyer supports.

"I think {voters} are prepared to take me on my merits," Hoyer said in an interview. "I perceive my job as helping Prince George's County, and I think I do that well.

"But I am not taking this candidacy for granted. I don't expect the issue {of race} to go away."

Hoyer, 51, has been a force in Prince George's politics for almost all of his adult life. His family moved to the county when he was 15 and he was elected to the state Senate at age 27. He quickly proved himself a skilled political insider; it took him only nine years to be elected Senate president.

His presence in local politics was just as formidable. At the same time that Prince George's was booming with growth, Hoyer and a few contemporaries, such as prominent lawyer Peter O'Malley, took charge of the county's Democratic organization. Before long, both admirers and detractors were calling their party apparatus a political machine.

That machine is less formidable than it once was, but it continues as an important part of Hoyer's political life. Hoyer campaigns and raises money for slates of organization-endorsed candidates, and the support is reciprocated.

"We created a psychology of inclusion, of cooperation," he said. "None of us can do it alone. You're most successful when you work together. And we reached out to everybody," building a biracial coalition.

Muhammad, who is making his first run for political office, has loosely allied himself with other insurgent candidates who describe Hoyer and the county political establishment as inbred and exclusionary. That argument, along with his appeal to the county's growing black community, give Muhammad's campaign a strong populist flavor.

Hoyer started in Congress in 1981, and he was the same quick study in Washington that he was in Annapolis. He struck up a friendship with then-Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), a prodigious Democratic fund-raiser and skilled political operative. With Coelho's help, Hoyer obtained a sought-after seat on the Appropriations Committee in 18 months.

Ironically, when Coelho resigned amid questions about his personal finances in 1989, it cleared the way for Hoyer to become chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the chamber's fourth-ranking leadership spot.

In the House, Hoyer has amassed the voting record of a traditional liberal Democrat and lavished attention on his Prince George's constituents.

Hoyer takes personal credit for helping route Metrorail's still-under-construction Green Line through the county. The National Archives and the Internal Revenue Service plan major new offices there. The Baltimore-Washington Parkway is being repaved.

Hoyer has also kept a close eye on the huge concentration of federal workers in the county. He is assigned to the Appropriations subcommittee on treasury, post office and general government, which oversees the pay and benefits of government employees. Among all Washington-area members of Congress, Hoyer stands out as a prime contact for government worker groups.

"He's a key guy in Washington, not just for the county but for the whole state," said state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), a close Hoyer ally. "He delivers. It's that simple."

Muhammad acknowledges that Hoyer "actually does bring a great deal of money into the county," but said "it does not trickle down into the African American community."

As a member of the Democratic leadership, Hoyer takes stands that generally reflect the national party line. Recently, he opposed an effort to make flag burning illegal and supported legislation requiring businesses to provide workers with three months of unpaid "family leave." Both proposals failed.

Internationally, he opposed military aid to the Nicaraguan rebels and serves as chairman of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights violations.

Until recently, however, Hoyer was better known among his congressional colleagues for his political skills than for his commitment to causes. Fellow Democrats questioned privately whether he was as committed to ideals as he was to successful deal-making.

That changed somewhat this spring when Hoyer shepherded his first major piece of legislation through the House. The Americans With Disabilities Act was widely lauded as a "bill of rights," protecting those with physical or mental disabilities from discrimination at work or in public accommodations.

Until recently, Hoyer's campaign against Muhammad has been a low-key affair, waged primarily at community forums.

But in the race's waning days, the pace has stepped up, with Muhammad attacking Hoyer during a televised debate and Hoyer purchasing his first television commercials since joining Congress nine years ago. Thanks largely to Hoyer's seniority, he had no trouble raising money to pay for the ads; he spent more than $115,000 on them, but still has more than $230,000 in the bank. Muhammad has raised less than $35,000.

Prince George's Democrats say that Muhammad has almost no campaign organization among the county's white residents and that Hoyer maintains a strong presence among blacks.

"I have seen Steny in all-black audiences many times, and I can't see that he has any difficulty at all relating to people," said state Del. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's). "Not black or white, just people."

"The role of race in politics is not new," Hoyer said. "But simply because you have a community in transition doesn't mean that everybody on one side of the ledger is bad and everybody on the other side is good. People don't think like that.

"I have a record and the voters can examine it. I think that is how this election will be decided."