Muffled Council Race Bulletin to Montgomery County voters: County Council races will still appear on your ballot next week.

At this point, it's hard to tell that local elections are coming up, especially in comparison with the high-decibel offensive before the September primaries, when County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) assembled the End Gridlock team -- candidates pledged to back his transportation initiatives -- and then stumped relentlessly for them. Daily, voters found fliers in their mailboxes and messages on their telephone machines. A business-backed coalition put ads on television.

It was one of the most aggressive municipal campaigns in county history, and many residents feared still higher volume through the general election.

But the candidates put much of their strategy and activity on hold during the three weeks that the sniper shootings were taking place across the Washington region, including six slain in Montgomery.

Duncan suspended virtually everything and even called Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, his party's on-the-ropes gubernatorial nominee, to say he couldn't campaign with her until arrests were made.

Democrat Michael Knapp, seeking to unseat Republican Nancy H. Dacek in District 2, stopped knocking on doors because he felt residents were too distracted. Dacek attempted to hand out literature at shopping centers and supermarkets. "I was standing behind pillars," she admitted.

And Thomas Perez, another Democrat poised to become the first Latino council member if he beats Republican Dennis E. Walsh in District 5, had volunteers ready to stand at Metro stops, "but I didn't want to put them in harm's way. We were all held hostage."

This final week, they and the remaining district and at-large candidates are trying to restart election engines. Dacek ventured out last night to find voters in Olney.

"Maybe I'll get some sympathy because I'm standing out in the rain," she said. "But that's good, too."

Disorder in the Court Campaign Closing arguments in the Montgomery County Circuit Court race became nastier this week, with the sitting judges and their judicial challenger accusing one another of stooping to the level of politicians.

Challenger Tom Eldridge mailed brochures accusing Judge DeLawrence Beard of protecting criminals. In response, about 20 of Beard's supporters -- including several County Council members -- held a news conference yesterday to denounce Eldridge and his "smear tactics."

The judges' race trends toward the genteel, largely because the incumbents rarely face opposition. They receive bipartisan support and declare victory the moment the polls close.

This year, however, the ballot has seven names for six available seats. Beard is one of the six sitting judges supported for election by a lawyers committee.

Eldridge's latest mailing says Beard fails to hold criminals accountable and cites four cases, including a gripping and hugely covered child abuse case in which Beard gave the prime defendant 18 months in jail.

"I guess the truth hurts," Eldridge said of the outcry his accusation provoked.

State Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery), a Beard supporter, said Eldridge was distorting Beard's long record.

Wild Cards on Deck With term limits in effect, Prince George's County will have not only a new executive but also lots of new faces on the County Council. The election outcomes would seem assured given most council districts' heavy Democratic majorities, but there are a couple of wild cards.

Democrat Theresa Mitchell Dudley, who came in a close second in the primary to Bladensburg Mayor David Harrington, has crossed party lines to endorse Republican Jason Fenwick in District 5.

The District 9 race with former school board member and council aide Marilynn Bland has been enlivened with a write-in campaign by lawyer Adrion J. Howell, who nearly won the five-way Democratic primary. Howell's candidacy was endorsed yesterday by Sylvanus G. Bent, who came in fifth.

If Howell loses but diverts significant Democratic votes, Republican Karen K. Griffith, a longtime sheriff's deputy, could benefit. Should she lose, Republicans very likely will have no seats on the next council.

Whoever wins will earn more money than the departing officeholders, thanks to legislation passed yesterday. By a 6 to 2 vote, the council agreed to boost the executive's salary to $130,000, from its current $104,000, and council members' pay to $70,000, from $56,803.

Compiled from reports by staff writers Michael H. Cottman, Phuong Ly and Eugene L. Meyer.