Perhaps the most telling thing about Baltimore's mayoral race is who's not running.

There's a huge field--23 candidates--for the Sept. 14 primary, but only three Democrats are believed to have a shot at winning. Noticeably absent, and sorely missed by some, is NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who was heavily courted to run but declined this year.

Even one of the front-runners sounds as if he would have preferred Mfume.

"We were all hoping that somebody of Kweisi's stature would do this difficult job," said Baltimore City Council member Martin O'Malley, who is locked in a close race with council President Lawrence A. Bell III and former council member Carl Stokes in the Democratic primary.

When Baltimoreans cast their ballots, they will be voting in the first mayor's race in 28 years without an incumbent. It is also a race without a political phenom, no one person on whom the masses have pinned their hopes. For years, the city was defined by its colorful mayor William Donald Schaefer (D), whose motto was "Do It Now," and who is credited with redeveloping the Inner Harbor. Schaefer became so popular he was elected governor, and more recently comptroller, and the erudite Kurt L. Schmoke (D) succeeded him as the city's first elected black mayor. Residents expected much from its Rhodes scholar mayor, and many have been disappointed that he hasn't delivered it.

Now, since Schmoke announced last year that he would not seek a fourth term, Baltimore is in search of a mayor who can save the city from its drug dealers and a notorious homicide rate and reclaim its fleeing population.

An average of 1,000 residents a month move from Baltimore, and the number of people killed annually hasn't dropped below 300 deaths for several years.

O'Malley, a lawyer and former prosecutor from northeast Baltimore, has been called a political opportunist, accused of entering the race only after it looked as if he, a white man, might capitalize on an African American vote split between the other leading candidates, who are black. O'Malley says he entered the race only because others didn't. But what does it say about Baltimore that potential leaders wait in the wings hoping someone else will step forward first?

"I think it shows that the city is about this far from having the wheels fly off the cart," O'Malley said, pinching together his thumb and forefinger.

One of his supporters, state Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), came around to O'Malley in a kind of process of elimination. First, he was among those trying to draft Mfume to run. Then, he went to Stokes, but stopped short of endorsing him when his candidacy erupted in controversy over a false claim on campaign literature that he had graduated from Loyola College.

Today, Rawlings says O'Malley is "the candidate that brings the greatest amount of energy, integrity and vision to the job," but he speaks plainly of what might have been.

"Very clearly, if Kweisi had run, there would not have been as many challengers. He would have been such an overwhelming choice for mayor that it could have brought the city together in addressing some of the urban problems that we have to deal with," he said. "That's not going to be, so what you're forced to do is look among the candidates who decided to run for mayor, and make a choice."

To many, that choice should be a black candidate. Baltimore's overwhelmingly Democratic population (almost nine registered Democrats for every Republican) is also two-thirds black.

Bell tells voters they should support him not only because he's qualified, but because he looks like them.

Stokes says it's not so much the race of the candidate, but the ability of that person to show he or she is focused on the best interests of Baltimore residents.

The Rev. Douglas Miles, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance--a group of more than 200 mostly African American churches that endorsed Stokes--says there's a practical reason the next mayor should be black.

"In a city that's a majority African American, a white man that would win by a plurality would be at a disadvantage in governing this city," he said. "Every appointment that he would make would come under scrutiny and would be subject to interpretation as either an affront to the African American community or an attempt to placate the African American community."

Stokes, Miles said, is the candidate best able to push the alliance's priorities, namely offering expanded drug treatment opportunities, emphasizing redevelopment of neighborhoods instead of the Inner Harbor and returning schools to city control. Two years ago, Baltimore surrendered some of its authority over public schools to the state in exchange for $254 million over five years. Stokes, a former school board member, calls the deal a partnership, while Bell, who opposed the arrangement, calls it a takeover.

The state control over schools, crowded jails and backlogged courts, and a shrinking population despite some recent commercial redevelopment successes in the Inner Harbor are some of the issues the next mayor will have to confront. The word "crisis" is freely tossed around.

"We've got schools that don't work, streets that are unsafe. I'd say that characterizes a city in crisis," Stokes said.

Some who had hoped Schmoke would save Baltimore were disappointed, and they now blame him for the state of the city.

"We're basically in a rowboat pulling in all different directions," said Jimmy Rouse, founder of Louie's Bookstore Cafe and president of the Charles Street Association, a group of merchants and property owners pushing for redevelopment. "There has been no real governing vision."

Miles, the minister, agreed that vision is the thing.

"It's a city that unless it has strong leadership, will sink further into an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair," he said.

It may be a sense of hopelessnes that contributes to the low turnout expected in the race. City Election Director Barbara E. Jackson doubts that more than a third of the registered voters will come out for the primary. "In Baltimore, the candidates make the election. They have to produce a certain amount of excitement," she said. "For whatever reason, neither candidate has stirred the people."

Stokes, at 49, is the eldest of the front-runners, and he likes to say that his opponents--Bell, 37, and O'Malley, 36--lack the maturity it takes to run the city. "He has no life experience," he has said at different times about both candidates.

Bell, meanwhile, touts himself as the Cal Ripken Jr. of City Hall, saying he has never missed a council meeting. Mayor is a natural step up from council president, he tells voters, pointing to former mayors, including Schaefer and Clarence "Du" Burns, who were council presidents first.

Bell has not been immune to campaign controversy. He has taken heat for spending $4,300 in campaign contributions on clothing at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, and he had to fire political strategist Julius Henson after Henson led Bell supporters to disrupt an endorsement rally for O'Malley. Bell's personal financial troubles have also come to light, with news that he has been sued three times recently over unpaid debts. The Baltimore Sun reported Saturday that two Bell supporters distributed in African American neighborhoods copies of a white supremacist group's letter endorsing O'Malley. O'Malley has condemned the endorsement while Bell said his campaign knew nothing of the pair's act, which he called "reprehensible." He said he has asked the state's attorney's office to investigate.

Although none of the candidates seems saintly, there are many in Baltimore who are looking for salvation from the next mayor. Miles advises against it.

"There are no saviors in the political arena," he said.

CAPTION: Baltimore City Council member and Democratic mayoral candidate Martin O'Malley, right, is endorsed by state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), a former mayor and governor. O'Malley's wife, Katie, looks on.

CAPTION: City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, left, and former council and school board member Carl Stokes end a forum in Owings Mills, Md.