VOTERS ANXIOUS about the high-profile D.C. mayoralty race may find it easy to ignore campaigns with smaller stakes -- and to dismiss "fringe" candidates. But some of these contests may hint at changes in the region's politics. Of particular note is the wrap-up of the Nation of Islam's first-ever experiment with electoral politics.

At first glance, it's hard to take this seriously. After all, the first of three contests joined by the Muslims ended in September, when Abdul Alim Muhammad was trounced in a Maryland primary challenge to the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Steny Hoyer. Two other Muslims face voters' judgment in Tuesday's general election, and one of them -- a D.C. school board candidate -- actually has a fighting, albeit remote chance.

But even if Shawn X Brakeen fails to get a school board seat and if George X Cure cannot overcome impossible odds in the D.C. delegate contest, the group's leaders can still claim a victory of sorts. Months before they launched these challenges, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan announced the once-separatist Muslims' plans to enter mainstream politics. Successful or not, these campaigns represent at least a symbolic crossover. Moreover, they set the stage for future bids by Muslims in Washington and other cities. Said Abdul Alim Muhammad, who is also Farrakhan's national spokesman, "We are already planning for 1992."

Muhammad said it is "inevitable" the Nation of Islam, with a claimed 10,000 members nationwide, will extend its political reach to other cities. Last month, the Muslims discussed related issues at a Detroit convention, where they met to devise a "national strategy." Even if they become no more than political gadflies, they could affect the tone -- and possibly the outcome -- of some elections where race itself is a factor. Clearly, the Chicago-based Muslims view the Washington region, with its large black population and symbolic import as the nation's capital, as a fertile testing ground. Muslim leaders know that even if Muhammad got only 21 percent of the vote in Prince George's County, compared to 79 percent for Hoyer (and about a third of the black vote in a county where more than half the voters are black), he nevertheless laid the groundwork for another bid. Likewise, Brakeen and Cure would be positioned to run again.

The Muslims, who gained some experience as grassroots organizers in Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign, have demonstrated political savvy. Using the charismatic Farrakhan as a draw, they attracted 10,000 people to the D.C. Convention Center this year and used the occasion to register some voters. They've built alliances with activists and clergymen, and even within the Democratic Party. "I think that for the first time getting out there, they did well," said D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Sr. (D-Ward 5).

But their campaigns failed to address many local issues and did little to excite voters or set Muslims apart from other candidates. Even though the controversies over Farrakhan's message and Muslim doctrine make them an easy target, they were not fired upon by rivals -- not even with salvos that are standard in most campaigns. They were spared partly because their fledgling campaigns weren't seen as threats, and also because the normally outspoken Farrakhan avoided making racially inflammatory remarks.

In fact, they benefited from racial controversies that bolstered the Muslims' image as champions of black populist causes. One such was the rift over the D.C. Council's resolution praising the Muslims for helping curtail open-air drug trafficking. In another instance, during Mayor Marion Barry's cocaine possession and perjury trial, Farrakhan joined other blacks in painting the trial as another white establishment ploy to undermine black leaders. Such incidents made some politicians fear that criticizing Muslim candidates "could generate sympathy for them," as D.C. Democratic Party chairman Joslyn N. Williams put it. Thus, few publicly questioned the paradox of Farrakhan railing against drug abuse while embracing a mayor on trial -- and ultimately convicted -- for drugs possession.

As a result, the first-ever Nation of Islam campaigns became like distant planets, orbiting far from the electoral sun, which made it easy not to notice the other extraordinary contradictions: that the Muslims were seeking entree into an establishment they shun; that Farrakhan, who simultaneously advocates that blacks return to Africa and presses for more power in America, had suddenly become terribly ambivalent.

They may not escape such tough questions next time out. If they become stronger contenders, the Muslims will have to confront publicly their political vulnerabilities -- not the least of which is their image, embodied in Farrakhan, whom many regard as a black counterpart to Klansman-turned-politician David Duke. Farrakhan went on a whirlwind PR campaign this year to moderate his image as a virulent antisemite. The efforts were not convincing to Jews, or indeed to many others who have been highly suspicious of Farrakhan.

Muslim doctrine is also a potential political stumbling block -- to say the least. Howard University political science professor Ronald Walters said the Muslims may have a hard time winning support from blacks and whites "because there is a long legacy of black nationalist ideology that has been of concern . . . to whites and blacks." This includes past references to whites as "blue-eyed devils" and descendants of pigs, talk of UFOs as well as repeated assertions about Jewish conspiracies. Not the least concern about the Nation of Islam's entry into mainstream politics is whether Muslim campaign tactics, as critics charge, include race-baiting. Farrakhan has said the Muslims would serve all constituents, regardless of race. But on the campaign stump this year, Muslims have made strong appeals for racial unity. In a well-publicized move, Cure abandoned the Democratic primary campaign to help reduce a white candidate's chances in a crowded field of black contenders. Muhammad warned at a summer fundraiser that if blacks don't vote for black candidates in the mayoral and congressional races, the predominantly black District could be run by whites.

Local politicians, black and white, have long wrestled with ways to respond to such Muslim views. Even if the Muslims tone down their image and rhetoric, the Democratic Party may not welcome the burden of backing a group considered heroes by some blacks and hatemongers by many whites. A similar problem was seen recently in Louisiana, where Republicans tried to come to grips with the Duke phenomonen -- a comparison Muslims hate.

"As long as they base their appeal for unity on a negative targeting of other groups, they're not going to be overly successful in any groups," said D.C. Council member Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3), who is Jewish. Many blacks, to be sure, also are disturbed by such racial appeals. "You cannot make {race} the dividing line on every issue," said H. Hartford Bookins, bishop of the area's African Methodist Episcopal church. "You can't just jump on white people."

Already, some party insiders -- including blacks -- are showing signs of resentment toward the Muslims. They are likely to face resistance from those who suspect the group is trying to stake a claim as the strongest advocates of a pro-black agenda. Such politicians as Maryland State Sen. Albert R. Wynn and State's Attorney Alex Williams, though, are likely to argue that they got there first.

Joslyn Williams has said the Muslims "have got to pay their dues just like everyone else," but at this point they are not likely to wait for the party's blessings. The Muslims need political leverage to advance their own economic and social agenda -- and they're impatient.

Since the movement began nearly 60 years ago, the Muslims have tried to establish black schools, businesses and other institutions. Their success has been stymied by a lack of access to mainstream business and government institutions whose cooperation is needed to get things done. "I think our political involvement is going to get us in," said Muhammad. "When things are divided, we'll be part of that process."

Elective office may be far off, but Howard University's Walters is one who predicts that the Muslims "are going to make some inroads," because they are "a formidable group."

Nathan McCall is a Washington Post reporter.