WITH ONLY 2 1/2 weeks to go before the candidates rest their cases and the voters take over, the pace of political activity in the city and its two neighboring states has quickened -- but with a curious twist. In the District, where political opportunities have been historically limited and generally monopolized by those who got there first, there's been no great tradition of pre-election stirrings by voters. But this year, with all sorts of top elected offices suddenly open, the crowds at city forums are larger and livelier than we have seen in years. Yet in suburban Maryland, where citizen attendance at such functions has been a cherished civic tradition, there's less than a fever pitch this year.

The explanation for these switches may not be all that complex. In the District, voters are looking at a remarkably open political market, with sweeping changes in store for the city's leadership and with the added impetus of renewing city government after the Barry trial. There will be a new mayor, a new delegate to the U.S. House, a new D.C. Council chairman, at least one new at-large member and perhaps a new ward representative or two; three more people will be elected to entirely new "offices" as a shadow congressional delegation to lobby Congress for statehood. That has produced a lively field of candidates, and with the trial of Marion Barry off center stage, voter attendance is picking up at forums running two or three at a time almost every night.

In Maryland there's no shortage of candidates this year, but neither is there the kind of hot contest or civic urgency that sends voters scurrying to school auditoriums and church halls for first-hand looks at contenders. Growth, taxes and abortion still generate citizen interest, but some of the most important races -- for the state legislature -- have yet to capture the attention they merit. Though the delegate and state senate jobs are technically seasonal and part-time, the work of these legislators has taken on new importance as once-federal programs have been left to the states to finance. Virginia saves much of its campaigning for the odd years, but does have contests for congressional seats this year.

In all, more than 500 candidates are running this year in the District and nearby regions of Maryland and Virginia. While the attractions for voters may vary and attendance at forums is never mandatory, the opportunities for comparative shopping and informed decision-making are there.