Without strong challenges to top incumbent officeholders in Maryland, the 1990 election was supposed to be a formal exercise with little bearing on the coming four years.

It hasn't turned out that way, though. State House leaders now expect Tuesday's general election to deliver strong signals from Maryland's 2.1 million registered voters about tax increases, growth and development, the involvement of special interests in politics and whether Republicans have moved the state closer to two-party status.

After the Sept. 11 primary ouster of four incumbent state senators, the November election for members of the General Assembly also will go a long way toward determining what restrictions, if any, the state will place on women's access to legal abortions.

Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who served 15 years as Baltimore's mayor, is conducting what some observers consider his last political campaign in a state that limits governors to two terms.

After a nonchalant primary campaign, Schaefer has returned to classic stumping this fall. Schaefer, 68, holds a more than 20-to-1 fund-raising edge and a wide lead in the latest independent polls. Yet, he appears unlikely to defeat Republican William S. Shepard, of Potomac, with the 82 percent of the vote Schaefer captured in 1986.

Shepard generated widespread criticism when he chose his wife to be his lieutenant governor running mate, and his campaign never recovered sufficiently to draw significant campaign contributions and support.

In three of the state's most populous counties -- Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Baltimore -- dissatisfaction with rising property taxes took on the earmarks of revolt. If voters favor ballot questions that limit annual tax increases, as polls suggest, the message also will be felt in Annapolis. Early next year, lawmakers are expected to consider proposals to increase state income, sales and gasoline taxes.

The anti-growth tide that led to Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer's narrow Democratic primary defeat will be tested again Nov. 6. In an unusual move, Kramer is mounting a write-in campaign to defeat veteran County Council member Neal Potter in the executive's race. In Baltimore County, Democratic incumbent County Executive Dennis Rasmussen faces a surprisingly strong challenge based largely on resentment against taxes and growth.

Though Democrats still hold a 2 to 1 edge in Maryland voter registration, Republicans viewed 1990 as a chance to cut into the Democrats' dominance in fast-growing suburban counties and in the 1st Congressional District.

After falling only 1,500 votes short of defeating Democratic Rep. Roy P. Dyson two years ago, Wayne Gilchrest prevailed in an eight-person Republican primary field in the 1st District and was tapped by the national party organization to get strong GOP attention heading into the November race.

Dyson has represented the district, which covers southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, for five terms. But he has been constantly on the defensive because of his close financial ties to special interests and questions about how his hawkish conservatism squares with his designation during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector.

The other members of Congress from Maryland are heavily favored to win reelection.

In Anne Arundel County, Republicans hope to pick up the county executive's office. Former House of Delegates minority leader Robert R. Neall was considered the early front-runner against Democrat Theodore Sophocleus, but recent polls showed the race too close to call.

Republicans also held out the possibility of gaining ground in the 188-member General Assembly, where the GOP held only 24 seats for the last four years. Some of their best opportunities, Republicans said, were in Howard, Montgomery, Baltimore and Carroll counties.

Among Democratic statewide officeholders, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein faces Republican Larry M. Epstein and Democratic Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is matched against Republican Edward L. Blanton Jr.

Abortion-rights advocates claim that the September primary assured them majority support in the state Senate and House, but they conceded that the outcome of a few general election contests will determine what kind of concessions they must make to get a bill passed in the General Assembly next year.

In Anne Arundel, the county executive's race is being shaped by the prospect of lean financial times. With the likelihood of an economic recession and the specter of the ballot measure that would cap increases in the government's tax revenue at 4.5 percent, both Neall and Sophocleus acknowledge that they will be hard-pressed to duplicate the expansion of services that marked the two terms of outgoing Executive James Lighthizer.

Davidsonville resident Neall, 42, has attempted to convince Anne Arundel's electorate that his legislative background in number-crunching makes him more qualified during an uncertain economic climate, saying that the county needs an executive who is not afraid to sacrifice his personal popularity by making hard decisions. If elected, he says he would impose a hiring freeze and look for ways to reduce the government's work force.

Sophocleus, 51, a Linthicum pharmacist, has served on the County Council during the last eight years and says the county needs an executive who will temper the tough times with compassion. Sophocleus, who has been endorsed by the majority of the county's labor unions, has pledged to press forward with plans to improve senior citizen, environmental and recreation programs, saying he is not convinced that the economy will be as bad as Neall states.

Voters in Anne Arundel will also be asked to fill three vacancies on the County Council. Although the races in the two north county districts are expected to be won by Democrats, the District 5 race has county Republican leaders optimistic that they will finally break the Democratic Party's 20-year monopoly on the council's seven seats. Three of the four Democratic incumbents also have general election races, although all of them are expected to win reelection fairly easily.

A hotly contested race for state Senate is in District 31, where Republican Del. John Leopold is challenging Democratic incumbent Philip C. Jimeno. Vacancies in the House of Delegates from Districts 30 and 31 have also spawned close partisan contests.