TALK ABOUT the ins and outs of politics: for a while, the field of Democrats for Maryland's 8th Congressional District turned into a kennel of underdogs chasing each other in a revolving door. Incumbent Republican Rep. Constance Morella must have been pleased; it looked as if nobody was actually running in the Democratic primary; they were just stumbling in and out every few hours. At last count there seemed to be five Democrats in the race, one just out and another who got out but soon wished he were back in. Party officials are trying to put the best face on this; they just aren't sure whose face.

The names that originally made news included that of Montgomery County Council member Rose Crenca, who said no thanks to those who hoped she would run. Another was Peter Franchot, whose freshman term as a state delegate was said to be enough to make him a household word among voters, and therefore a front-runner. But American University professor Allan Lichtman figured he could give Mr. Franchot and the others a run for it -- until veteran county council member Michael L. Gudis jumped in.

At that point, Prof. Lichtman bailed out and some leading supporters of Del. Franchot, including State Sen. Laurence Levitan, jumped ship to the Gudis campaign. Then Mr. Gudis went to his first public forum and blew several of his answers to questions about national and international issues. Less than 12 hours later, he decided to withdraw, which sent Sen. Levitan back to Del. Franchot and attracted some other prominent Democrats as well. Prof. Lichtman said he was disappointed but thought it inappropriate to flip-flop on his decision to get out.

National and county Democratic officials noted that in 1986 there were seven Democrats chewing each other up, and that this last-minute shake-up might "crystallize the Democratic message a little earlier." That remains to be seen -- or heard -- but so far the message most people are getting is hopelessly garbled.