In his campaign speeches, Abdul Alim Muhammad, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Maryland, describes white politicians as "slave masters of a white-run political machine." Prince George's County, he says, "is plantation politics at its worst."

Muhammad's bid to unseat Rep. Steny H. Hoyer in the 5th District primary has generated widespread uneasiness in Prince George's political circles by introducing a brand of racial politics that local leaders have long been trying to avoid.

Local polticians -- both black and white -- are striving to build multi-ethnic coalitions, ever mindful of demographic shifts that are likely to place Prince George's black population near 50 percent when the 1990 Census figures are released.

Muhammad, national spokesman for the Nation of Islam, on the other hand, has campaigned almost exclusively within the county's black corridors, saying Hoyer and other white politicians consistently have denied blacks their fair share of political power. And he has used tough talk to challenge the county's blacks to take control of their political destinies.

"If you think you are free in Prince George's County, you are no freer in Prince George's, politically speaking, than blacks in South Africa," said Muhammad, eliciting a round of shouts and applause at a sparsely attended campaign rally in Camp Springs last Thursday.

It is not the first time that a black candidate in Prince George's has played racial politics. But Muhammad's affiliation with the often-controversial Nation of Islam, and the fact that he is running for national and not local office, has given his statements a resonance that other candidates' have lacked.

"Muhammad has added a new facet to Prince George's County politics," said Mary C. Larkin, a candidate for delegate in the 26th District and a member of the Coalition on Black Affairs. "It is almost like he is airing the kind of dirty laundry that politicians would just as soon keep in their basements. People have been saying this kind of thing for years but not in ways that have forced politicians to respond."

Political observers say Muhammad faces an uphill battle in his bid to unseat Hoyer. A longtime fixture in county politics, Hoyer has built loyalty during the years by securing generous funding for local programs and leading the battle for services such as the long-awaited extension of the Metro Green Line.

In contrast to his opponent's sophisticated drive for reelection, which includes television spots, direct mail and fund-raisers, Muhammad has operated a shoestring campaign operated almost solely by Nation of Islam volunteers. Although he initially promised that Minister Louis Farrakhan would play a major role in his campaign, the leader of the Nation of Islam has largely stayed on the sidelines. Farrakhan canceled three scheduled campaign appearances on Muhammad's behalf last Thursday, although Muhammad said Farrakhan would reschedule them before the Sept. 11 primary.

The recurring message in Muhammad's stump speeches is about race and oppression. At one recent appearance he noted, incorrectly, that Prince George's was the last county in the state to abolish slavery. In another he talked about Ku Klux Klan chapters that are allegedly active in pockets of Prince George's.

Muhammad, a 41-year-old surgeon who moved to Prince George's in 1981, says he is not fanning the flames of racism. "I am not excluding or ignoring white voters in my campaign," Muhammad said. "I am talking about the issues that I think are most important to this county. If those issues disproportionately affect black residents, so be it."

Hoyer, part of the inner circle of the House Democratic leadership, has played down Muhammad's challenge and said that Muhammad's racial rhetoric is detrimental and dangerous to the county.

Howard University political science professor Alvin Thornton, a resident of Prince George's County, said Muhammad's discussion of race in his campaign could make county politicians more willing to talk about racial issues.

"Race is one of those things that everybody would rather not bring up," Thornton said. "It is clear that the power structure in Prince George's County is going to have to shift as the county becomes more black. A candidate like Muhammad hastens the day when people are willing to sit down and talk about how that is going to take place."

Blacks make up almost half of the county's population yet hold 15 of the 54 main elected offices. Such numbers help explain why Muhammad's statements about "political apartheid" seem to garner more respect than resentment from some local black politicians.

"He is up there saying things that people have said privately for years," said state Del. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's), who is running for reelection in the 24th District. "I don't know who he makes uncomfortable, maybe those white boys, but not me."

But many of the same politicians who say they tacitly support Muhammad's focus on black pride and racial independence question how his message will play in the county.

"Voters in Prince George's County are too sophisticated to vote solely on the basis of race," said state Sen. Albert R. Wynn (D), one of the county's best-known black politicians. "This is a highly educated, politically astute electorate that is going to focus not just on a candidate's color but on that candidate's ability to deliver goods and services."

Muhammad faults the media for overemphasizing his affiliation with the Nation of Islam while ignoring the religious affiliation of other candidates. "We are not asking the voters to choose the Nation of Islam at the ballot box," Muhammad said. "We are asking them to look over the characteristics of the individuals who are running. Race and religion should not be the reason that people vote for or against someone."

At the same time, Muhammad opens and closes his speeches with an Islamic greeting of peace, "al-salam aleikum," and cites his "moral, righteous and judicious" credentials that grow out of his Muslim beliefs.

"That is where a candidate like {Muhammad} is vulnerable," said Ron Walters, chairman of Howard University's Political Science Department. "If he is going to win, he has to run a multiracial campaign. He has to decide if he is going to try and do that or if he is going to run as a candidate from the Nation of Islam . . . . "

Muhammad's campaign represents the first time that a member of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam has entered national politics. Muhammad registered to vote only a few months ago. Two other Nation of Islam members have entered races in the District. Shawn X Brakeen is running for a school board seat and George X Cure is campaigning for the D.C. delegate seat in Congress.

As spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Muhammad often engaged in controversial discourse, as evidenced during a speaking engagement at Yale University last February. During the wide-ranging question-and-answer session, Muhammad described the AIDS virus as a "biological weapon to depopulate Africa" that "was probably developed on the American side at the Army Biological Warfare Center at Fort Detrick, Maryland." He described the drug trade as a "conspiracy by white people," and made references to a time when God would send a space ship to earth to herald the end of the world.

Muhammad appears to have softened his rhetoric since announcing his candidacy. He speaks more now of cooperative ventures than conspiracy theories, while still noting that blacks are disproportionately affected by social ills such as poverty, homelessness and AIDS. His prescription for such problems also has a softer tone, as he pledges to work within the channels of Congress, a place he once said needed change "by any means necessary."

Muhammad's campaign stresses social concerns such as affordable housing, education, and drug and crime prevention. He points to his affiliation with the Abundant Life Clinic in Southeast Washington, a drug rehabilitation center, and his work at Howard University Hospital and Washington Hospital Center as evidence of his commitment to helping the downtrodden.

Observers note that Muhammad has changed his demeanor as well as his rhetoric in recent months. The stoic, ever-serious stance he assumed in his role as spokesman for the Nation of Islam has become more confrontational in recent weeks. On a recent television appearance with Hoyer on "Fox Morning News," Muhammad pointed a finger in his opponent's face and announced: "You're through. You're finished."

Muhammad said he simply is "responding to new conditions in a new manner." And he adds: "I am going to be the first truly independent black man in Congress."