The oversize campaign signs along the highway announced his name in bold capital letters long before his arrival. C. Anthony Muse strode into the crowded reception, a radiant blur of handshakes, hugs and backslaps.

"How you doing?" he said to everyone he met.

A question was put to him, and Muse stopped. If he lost his quest to become the next Prince George's county executive, would he run for Congress, perhaps against the reigning incumbent, Albert R. Wynn (D)?

The expected response, one probably recommended by any political adviser, would be that he's focused on the campaign to succeed Wayne K. Curry (D) -- a race he expects to win, by the way. But Muse, 44, the pastor of a large Oxon Hill church, has proved anything but predictable since launching a political career more than a decade ago.

Yes, Muse said in response to the question, he will run against Wynn if this campaign doesn't work out. "He'll have a challenge in two years. Two years down the road, it will be Congress."

Wayne Clarke, Muse's campaign adviser, seemed momentarily flabbergasted. "Tell him you're kidding," he said, but Muse only laughed.

"You better be ready," the candidate replied.

Over the course of the campaign for county executive, Muse's telegenic good looks and his flair for dramatics have helped him snag the spotlight. On many days, he has traveled Prince George's in a 32-foot RV with a banner on the side displaying his name and photograph.

But beyond drama, Muse's campaign has been something of a puzzle. After announcing his candidacy in May, he disseminated few policy pronouncements and went three months before summoning reporters to talk about any issue.

While he has the least government experience of the five Democrats in the race, having served one term in the Maryland General Assembly, Muse has tried to overcome the disparity by saying that a vote for his rivals -- Del. Rushern L. Baker III, County Council member M.H. Jim Estepp, chief prosecutor Jack B. Johnson and Major F. Riddick Jr. -- is tantamount to "recycling failed leadership."

Yet, questions persist in the county's political community about why Muse is running for the top office in Prince George's. Why not seek a state Senate or County Council seat and build his credentials? "People are always asking what motivates him, what drives him," said Gregory S. Proctor, Muse's former campaign manager. "Does he want to be a leader, or a star? Or is it both?"

Muse's emergence as a political force in Prince George's follows an improbable path that originated in the harshest of circumstances, a shattered family life in Baltimore from which he ended up in foster care and struggled with poverty before becoming a minister.

Over the past two decades, he has built a reputation as a dynamic preacher. But it was his role as pastor that thrust Muse into controversy. In 1999, he quit the United Methodist Church and led an exodus of his followers from a Brandywine congregation. He left behind $6 million in debt from a construction project he initiated.

The split prompted the United Methodists to file a lawsuit against Muse that was recently settled with both sides agreeing that he engaged in no wrongdoing. If the feud has been an embarrassment, Muse concedes no injury. "I'm a survivor," he said during an interview at his Tantallon home, where he lives with his wife, news anchor Pat Lawson Muse.

At candidates forums, Muse has talked broadly of bolstering the public schools, of his belief in mandating uniforms for students. As much as anything, though, Muse sought to link the story of Prince George's to the trajectory of his own life. "I know that failure can be turned around," he said.

A Yearning to Be Someone Muse has never met his biological father, and he learned his name only when he was an adult and saw his birth certificate for the first time. His mother began having children when she was a teenager and had four boys and a girl by the time of Muse's birth in 1958.

When Muse was young, the family lived in Park Heights, a working-class Baltimore neighborhood. His mother, Gloria Watson, married a man prone to violent outbursts. On countless occasions, Muse said, his stepfather beat him, his siblings and his mother.

His mother was deeply religious, and when Muse was 12, she announced to the children that they were moving to Alabama to join a revival group and escape their stepfather. On the day they were supposed to leave, Muse packed a suitcase and ran away. For a few months, he lived with an older brother. Then, he said, he passed through 11 foster families in two years.

Muse left some of the homes after fighting with the children, or the foster parents. He was thrown out of Pimlico Junior High School, he said, after jumping up on a lunchroom table, kicking over students' lunches and starting a melee. His last stop on the foster care circuit was the home of the Rev. George Stansbury, a United Methodist Church minister whom he credits with imposing order on his life.

Stansbury described Muse as a likable youngster who talked of becoming a preacher and who was prone to embellishing stories about himself. "He'd tell people, 'I work with the Billy Graham crusade.' He was building himself up," Stansbury said. "I told him to stop telling that tale. He wanted to be big. He wanted to be somebody."

One night, Muse called Stansbury to rescue him from a drug dealer whom he feared would harm him. Stansbury drove to the Civic Center in downtown Baltimore. "He was hiding under the stairs," Stansbury said.

Muse acknowledged the incident, saying he was "hanging around with the wrong people." Stansbury, he said, saved him from ending up in jail. "I would be a very sick person if I didn't have that," he said.

Even with his struggles, Muse was a star at church, where he began preaching by age 13, often in a peach-colored suit with bell bottoms. "He was the prima donna," said the Rev. Theresa Robinson, whose mother was a foster parent to Muse. "It was like no one else existed."

By age 20, Muse was a United Methodist minister, assigned to Mount Zion UMC in Ellicott City. His youthfulness, not to mention his Afro and red Gremlin, surprised his new congregants. But Muse won them over with his dramatic preaching and by adding a guitar and drums to the service.

To those who knew him, Muse was a mix of ambition and insecurity. Nina Ringgold, a congregant who gave him money and cooked for him, said he'd sign cards to her with "Dr. C. Anthony Muse" long before he had entered a doctoral program. "He was kind of maladjusted," she said. "I don't think he trusted people because he had so many disappointments."

But Muse had found his voice in the pulpit. After graduating from Morgan State University in Baltimore, he received a master's in divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary in the District, then a doctorate at Howard University.

In 1984, Muse was transferred to Gibbons United Methodist Church in Brandywine. He brought his customary energy to the assignment, and his reputation grew.

Sydney Moore, a businessman, heard Muse preach and saw in him a young Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the Harlem minister who became a congressman in 1945. "There was such a limited pool of African American political talent that he stood out," he said.

Moore introduced Muse to blacks who were influential in county politics, and in 1990 Muse ran for the House of Delegates, challenging a slate sponsored by state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

Muse lost, but he had established a signature political style, staffing his campaign with congregants and touting himself as a voice for the needy. "It was real -- I've seen him give money to people who needed it," said Proctor, his campaign manager that year. "He could say, 'I'm one of you.' "

By then, Muse had been introduced to Pat Lawson, and the two were engaged after dating for only four months. If they seemed like an odd match -- the gregarious minister and the reserved, polished newscaster -- Lawson Muse says they had in common their abiding faith.

They also wanted to adopt a child, in part, Lawson Muse said, because her husband had benefited from his foster parents. One afternoon, Muse officiated at the funeral of a young Southeast woman who had died after a long illness. Muse met the woman's 6-year-old daughter, Lynell.

"That's my mommy in the casket," she told the pastor, according to Lawson Muse. The girl fretted about her future -- her father was in prison at the time -- and asked, "Can I come and live with you?"

A month later, Lynell moved into the Muses' home; they've been her guardians ever since.

A Delegate and More With their move to Tantallon in the early 1990s, Muse established residency in the senatorial district of Gloria G. Lawlah (D). Impressed by Muse's 1990 campaign, Lawlah invited him to run for state delegate on her slate that year, and he won.

On the night of his victory, Proctor said, Muse was already thinking of his next step. "As soon as we get the word, he says to me, 'You know, the Senate's next,' " Proctor said. Muse said he does not recall making the statement.

Muse served on the House Ways and Means Committee and impressed colleagues with his fiery oratory. In one memorable appearance, he spoke in favor of designating the Astrodon johnstoni as Maryland's official dinosaur. "He was waving around this plastic replica. He really got into it, and it was very helpful," said Del. Joan B. Pitkin (D-Pr. George's), a sponsor of the legislation, which passed.

Muse's alliance with Lawlah soon soured, and in 1998 -- with an endorsement from Curry -- he challenged her in the Democratic primary. Lawlah received an infusion of cash from Miller, and she won the race by 200 votes. Within a year, Muse began hatching his campaign for county executive.

The Church Files Suit Throughout the race, Muse's rivals have stressed their high-profile roles in government as the necessary preparation for the job. Muse often cites his years at the helm of a church, managing a multimillion-dollar budget and serving his congregants. "It's consensus building," he said. "They say taxes, we say tithe. They say services, we say ministries. It's all about money and how you're going to spend it."

It was in his role as pastor that Muse directed the $6 million project to build a new sanctuary in Brandywine. But the project was beset by cost overruns and contractors clamoring for overdue payments.

The United Methodist Church, which had authority over the congregation and which pumped $1.2 million into the project, refused in 1999 to co-sign a loan for $600,000. Muse was furious. He formed another church, Ark of Safety Christian Church, and thousands of his supporters followed him to their new sanctuary, a converted Oxon Hill supermarket. The congregants who remained eventually lost the Brandywine property to foreclosure.

The United Methodists sued Muse and his allies in 2000, charging that he had erased financial records from computer files and that he had walked away with church property. The suit was resolved this year, with Ark of Safety agreeing to pay the church $13,000 -- including about $8,200 that represented half of the collection from Muse's final services in Brandywine -- and the return of a television set and desk.

"Mr. Muse made a covenant with the United Methodist Church to live within its discipline," said Joseph H. Yeakel, a retired United Methodist bishop. "Then he decided to take a part of the denomination out of the denomination. If you can live with a person who functions at that level, you can vote for him."

Muse said his decision to quit the church was rooted, in part, in theological differences -- he opposed a United Methodist decision to appoint a pastor who had had a sex-change operation -- and he accused church officials of seeking to tarnish his reputation. "It was a public relations scam," Muse said. "All they got back was a TV set and a desk. What does that say?"

Nevertheless, the conflict has caused awkward moments. During a recent televised debate, the moderator asked Muse to explain the lawsuit. Muse held up a copy of the court settlement, twice described himself as a "man of convictions" and said that anyone who used the case against him was engaged in "political mudslinging."

A few minutes later, Muse looked into the camera and promised if elected to donate his salary for his entire first term to the county's public schools. "I believe in servanthood," he said.

This is the first of five profiles of the Democratic candidates for Prince George's county executive.

Campaign manager Wayne Clarke, left, and supporters Evon Sivells and Jean Strozier dance with C. Anthony Muse at a campaign event in Temple Hills in April. "I'm a survivor," Muse says. ". . . I know that failure can be turned around."C. Anthony Muse greets supporters Jean Strozier, left, and Evon Sivells in April. The pastor and former state delegate is one of five candidates for Prince George's county executive.