They plugged him eight times, but somehow couldn't put him away. And that wasn't even the worst part.

They didn't bother to check the rear-view mirror before they opened fire, gangland style, from their speeding car. A prudent glimpse would have produced the sight of a police car cruising on routine patrol.

Had they seen that, the La Cosa Nostra hit men who gunned down Salvatore Testa, 26, son of a late don, last weekend in broad daylight in a busy outdoor food market here might have spared themselves the botched execution attempt, the ensuing high-speed police chase, the crash into the utility pole, the arrest, everything.

But in Philadelphia's grisly 2-year-old mob war, the script seems to have been lifted from Jimmy Breslin's "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight."

A sort of reverse social Darwinism has set in with the mob here. "All of the old, sophisticated guys have been bumped off, and we're down to the street punks now," said one high police official. "It's turning into a real amateur hour."

"They were just plain dumb," added George Parry of the latest gangland hit. Parry heads the organized-crime unit of the district attorney's office.

Dumb or not, the mob here has been uncommonly busy of late. For decades a sleepy, backwater, conservative branch-office operation, Philadelphia's La Cosa Nostra is in the throes of the worst factional strife in its history.

What everyone is fighting for, most law enforcement officials agree, is control over illicit activities in the gambling boom town of Atlantic City.

In the last 28 months, two dons, one consigliere and a dozen other mob members or associates have been gunned down, bombed, tortured or bludgeoned.

Early in the game, some of the hits were pulled off with elan. One victim got his from a hired gun who dressed up as flower deliveryman and presented the intended's wife with two pots of poinsettias before emptying six rounds of a .22 automatic from point-blank range into her husband, who had been talking nonchalantly on the kitchen telephone.

More typically, police have found the bodies in plastic bags in back alleys in the dead of night.

The corpses often had adornments: ashes stuffed in a mouth, firecrackers stuck down a throat, torn $20 bills placed in places that family newspapers don't write about. These are the signatures that separate a "disrespectful hit" from a respectful one within Philadelphia's image-conscious underworld.

The old law enforcement saw says that when the mob starts thinning its ranks this way, the biggest job for the cops is to sit back and keep a good body count.

That may be a bit oversimplified, but it's not all wrong.

At least five law enforcement agencies--the city police, the district attorney's office, the FBI, the Justice Department's strike force and the Pennsylvania Crime Commission--are going to considerable expense to keep the mob under heavy watch and pressure. But while there have been some isolated convictions, there's not yet been the sort of major break that would stop the carnage.

Nor has there been any inordinate hand-wringing about it.

"A mob killing is in some ways the best of all worlds," Parry said. "You get rid of a hood who won't be missed and you are given an investigative predicate to go in and find the killer. Stripped of any moral sense, it's a good deal for law enforcement. As a moral person, of course, I have to lament the loss of life."

Parry has been tracking the mob for a decade, and bristles at its glorification. "There's no statecraft to it, no diplomacy, no high principle. It's all greed."

Others in law enforcement forgo any lament. "As long as some little kid doesn't get blown away in the crossfire, I don't think people give a damn," one top police official said.

Outside the law enforcement community, the view of the hostilities does tend toward the casual.

"For the most part, I think our readers see this as something with great entertainment value," said Zachary Stalberg, executive editor of The Philadelphia Daily News, a 300,000-circulation tabloid that swoops in after each mob killing to render the details in Runyonesque, rat-a-tat-tat prose.

"Every time someone new turns up in a Hefty bag," Stalberg said, "we get a considerable extra sale."

From the cops to the columnists, everyone has a different theory about the killings. Stalberg complains that it would be "an even better story if it wasn't so confusing. Each time someone else gets hit, you've got new alignments."

Some believe that behind the bloodbath are the New York families, trying to muscle in on Philadelphia to take away its historic territorial control over Atlantic City, suddenly rich with possibilities now that gambling has come to town.

Some think it is nothing more than an internal succession crisis, with younger members knocking off older ones for being too conservative, then knocking themselves off in creating a new pecking order.

Some depict it as a kind of ethical debate between those who think the Philadelphia mob ought to move more aggressively into narcotics traffic and prostitution, and those who would prefer to stick with loan-sharking and numbers writing.

The Atlantic City connection figures in almost everyone's calculations, if for no other reason than it ups the ante for anyone running the Philadelphia family.

"There's something to fight over," Parry said. Law enforcement sources say the mob already has ties to unions and vendors in the city.

The hostilities began on the night of March 21, 1980, when Angelo Bruno, Philadelphia's don for 21 bloodless years, was shot inside his car after emerging from a late dinner at Cous' Little Italy, a south Philadelphia restaurant where the menu used to feature dishes named after leading local underworld figures.

Bruno was the sort of boss who believed in low profiles and quiet towns. The FBI has tapes of one of his capos, the late Frank Sindone, a high-living local loan shark, complaining that Bruno made him get rid of a fancy new Cadillac for fear it would attract too much attention.

Other mob conversations recorded by investigators in the late 1970s are peppered with the complaints of younger, more restless members of the family grousing that Bruno was too passive about Atlantic City and too conservative about drugs.

No one is sure who had Bruno killed or why. He was succeeded by his underboss, Philip (Chicken Man) Testa, whose reign lasted a year. Testa was blown away by a remote-control bomb, packed with finishing nails, as he entered his south Philadelphia home shortly before dawn one morning.

As the hits started to come in rapid-fire succession, police made it a practice of warning those believed to be targets, in the hopes they might "flip." By and large, the mob's omerta, the code of silence, has held, but the interviews have produced some poignant moments.

One police investigator described a conversation with Harry (The Hunchback) Riccobene, 72, who has spent most of his adult life behind bars for drug and gambling convictions:

"I tell him he's about to get whacked, and the old man just sits there, with tears welling in his eyes, complaining about these new kids in the family. He says you just can't talk to them anymore."

This particular manifestation of the generation gap had an unusual denouement. Riccobene was the target of a hit a few months later. It came while he made a call from a phone booth at a gas station. Incredibly, he wrestled the gun away from his younger assailant and survived the incident.

The Pennsylvania Crime Commission reports that the new don appears to be Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo, a loan shark and gambler now based in Atlantic City.

"He's a south Philadelphia bronco with the white shoes, yellow ties and a huge Napoleonic complex," one police official said. "He gets all his dialogue from the movies."

Malcolm Lazin, chairman of the crime commission, said law enforcement authorities are investigating whether Scarfo authorized the most recent hit attempt, the one last weekend against Philip Testa's son, Salvatore. Young Testa reportedly had vowed to avenge his father's death, and the investigators want to know whether Scarfo decided to get to him first.

"It's almost like the Biblical edict of the seeds sown by the father and paid with the blood of the son," Lazin said.

While there has been a good deal of clucking over the misfires of the attempted Testa hit, not all the amateurishness has been confined to the mob.

After the two suspects were arrested last weekend, their bail was set at $50,000. That allowed them to go free for $5,000 in cash, which they produced instantly. The district attorney, police and judge immediately entered into heavy three-cornered recriminations over how that had happened.

Meanwhile, the pair failed to show for a hearing three days later to raise their bail to $10 million apiece.

Their whereabouts were a mystery, even to their attorney, Victor Ziccardi. "I don't know if they're over the Delaware River," he told the judge at the hearing, "or under it."

Apparently, it was neither. On Friday, the two suspects, to the amazement of everyone, surrendered to police, had their bail revoked and were taken into custody. The old dons must be turning in their graves.