AND WE thought the District was the home of free-for-all, packed-field elections: Try Baltimore, where at last count 25 candidates were running for mayor. Unlike the District -- where city politics is relatively young and still tempered by limitations on genuine home rule -- Baltimore has its longtime kingmakers, sometime bosses and old-line patriarchs. This year, though, they're at wit's end; the uninspiring stampede has left them tripping over each other in search of ponies to back. When Mayor Kurt Schmoke announced that he was bowing out, the Great Mentioner turned to Kweisi Mfume. But Mr. Mfume eventually said no.

The main event on Sept. 14, for reasons of registration, is the Democratic primary, in which 15 candidates are listed. Seven candidates are set for the Republican primary and at least three independents have announced. So far Mayor Schmoke hasn't picked a favorite. Most seasoned eyes have been focusing on polling by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc., which is showing a tightening of the race. In June the poll showed City Council President Lawrence Bell leading with 33 percent and former council and school board member Carl Stokes with 17 percent. This month's survey shows Mr. Bell at 29 percent, followed closely -- at 26 percent -- by council member Martin O'Malley and Mr. Stokes, at 20 percent.

The nomination is up for grabs, says Gonzales/Arscott, but "one thing is certain: Race -- not crime or drugs or education -- has become the number one issue." African Americans constitute 63 percent of the electorate. Mr. Bell and Mr. Stokes are black, Mr. O'Malley is white. Mr. O'Malley gets 51 percent of white voters, 12 percent of black voters; Mr. Bell gets 41 percent of black voters, 9 percent of the white voters; Mr. Stokes comes out with the best balance: 23 percent of white voters and 18 percent of black voters. This week, he also was endorsed by the Sun and the Afro-American.

In the time left, voters may concentrate more on issues other than race. Maryland taxpayers everywhere should hope so, given the heavy amounts of state money that go to the city. The economic health of Baltimore is important to all Marylanders, and that is what the top contenders need to address with more specifics.