It's been for the most part an under-the-radar contest, this scramble to see who among three county Circuit Court judges and three challengers -- all more or less unknown -- will prevail come Nov. 2.

But lately there have been indications that the pace is quickening. For one thing, lively accusations were traded recently over missing campaign signs (Libertarian candidate Stephen P. Beatty, pointing the finger at "someone who doesn't like what we're doing") and signs improperly placed (the three incumbents, speaking of Beatty's signs).

Then last week came a press release from Judge David S. Bruce, a Democrat, accusing challenger Beatty of having "no respect for the court system."

It seems that, at a forum earlier in the week, Beatty had said that "probation in our county is ridiculous." He explained later that probation "has become a way of life for the thugs in Anne Arundel County," adding that it allows people who belong in jail to instead walk free.

The problem, Bruce's press release said, is that Beatty himself was "placed on probation" and ordered to perform community service in 2001 for driving with a suspended license. What's more, the release said, Beatty last month was charged with failure to display a license on demand. "Our community needs to look up to judges, not to someone who breaks the law," Bruce said in the release.

"Is he really trying to pull that?" Beatty, a public defender, asked Tuesday. "To stoop to using something so minor and silly when there are real serious issues we should be talking about just simply shows they really are unfit for the bench."

He explained: "The kind of probation I'm talking about is when a person commits a criminal offense."

In Maryland's judicial election system, the candidates -- Democratic incumbents Michele D. Jaklitsch and Rodney C. Warren, Republican challengers Paul Goetzke and Paul F. Harris, as well as Bruce and Beatty -- appear on the ballot in alphabetical order, with no mention of incumbency or party affiliation. The top three vote-getters win.

The uncertainty that system causes in a race where few candidates enjoy name recognition may account for some of the recent pre-election activity. "He hurts me more than anybody else," Bruce said of Beatty on Tuesday, "because I would otherwise be the first on the ballot."