A rare tie vote in the College Park elections saved two-term Mayor Alvin Kushner from a two-vote defeat by challenger V. Charles Donnelly after 58 absentee ballots were added yesterday to the results of Tuesday's election.

If the preliminary count is certified by elections officials, Kushner, 58, and Donnelly, 42, will have to meet again in a special election, officials said last night.

The College Park results were the most dramatic in the municipal elections in Maryland Tuesday that saw incumbents defeated by political newcomers in Annapolis, Rockville and Takoma Park.

Kushner said in an interview yesterday, before the absentee ballots were counted and while he was losing by two votes, that the election was close because Donnelly spent nearly twice the $2,000 to $3,000 that Kushner estimated he had raised for his reelection effort.

Donnelly also expressed surprise at the close results.

"If somebody had said it would be two votes," he said, "I would have laughed at that."

Neither Kushner, a lawyer for the Internal Revenue Service, nor Donnelly, a private lawyer, could be reached for comment after the absentee ballots were totaled.

The new results also showed a tie between Barry E. Wood and Sherrill Murray for a seat on the City Council.

Political observers and candidates said that the results showed a new breed of voter, who is increasingly concerned about local issues and is influenced by more sophisticated local campaigns.

Mayors Richard Hillman of Annapolis, Viola Hovsepian of Rockville, and Sammie Abbott of Takoma Park, all were defeated.

Prince George's election supervisor Robert Antonetti said yesterday that local campaigns were more "issue-oriented" this year and attracted voters who normally are not interested in off-year elections.

Keith Haller of Potomac Survey Research, a polling firm that acted as a consultant for Rockville Mayor-elect Steven Van Grack, said that his surveys showed a more intense electorate who are more aware of local issues.

"People are assessing and scrutinizing candidates running for local offices more than they ever have before," Haller said. "They are looking for qualified people."

That shift was demonstrated in Rockville by an increase in voter participation from the 4,200 people who voted in 1984 to the 6,700 who cast ballots on Tuesday, Haller said.

About 1,000 of those voters were registered by the Van Grack campaign, said the new mayor, who was sworn in last night.

"I honestly believe that people are focusing in on local government more and more," he said yesterday. "I also sense that the current elected officials were not as responsive to the people."

Candidates such as Van Grack, and Dennis Callahan in Annapolis, played on this theme, drawing on the dissatisfaction that some city residents said they felt with the incumbents.

"What affected people here is that we felt we were being treated as a stepchild by the city and the state," said Callahan, "and we had lost control of our downtown."

During the campaign, Democrat Callahan blamed Republican Hillman for this alienation and papered the town with green and white signs that announced his political presence.

The smoother, higher-visibility campaigns, Haller and Antonetti said in separate interviews, played to the increased voter interest that was evidenced by the defeats of the incumbents.

Said Haller: "It's a fairly drastic change in the way people look at [local] elections."