EAST ST. LOUIS, ILL. -- They say here that it is the case of the dead man versus the undertaker and that for once the dead man may win.

Clyde C. Jordan, a local bigwig who wanted to be mayor, lost the Feb. 24 Democratic primary by about 1,000 votes to two-term incumbent Carl E. Officer, 34, a mortician. Then Jordan died.

But, depending on the outcome of complex court appeals, there could be a rerun of the mayoral primary. And by a quirk of Illinois law, Jordan could be on the ballot.

The postponed general election is scheduled Aug. 4, but the court battle continues because the stakes for this depressed, one-time industrial town of about 50,000 are unusually high.

At Officer's behest, the city has sold $474 million in bonds to pay for an ambitious project to redevelop the river front, and the next mayor will play an important role in parceling out that business.

If Jordan were to win a new primary, his substitute in the general election would be named by the local Democratic organization, which is at odds with Officer.

The committee has named its potential substitute, former alderman Gordon Bush. His popularity is seen by some as strengthening Jordan's chances from the grave.

If the Aug. 4 general election comes off and a lower-court ruling invalidating the February primary is upheld afterward, there could be reruns of both the primary and the general election.

"It's a mess, but people are used to a lot of strange things happening politically around here," said Barry Freedman, executive director of Target 2000, a business-redevelopment group.

Freedman may have a point.

In 1896, angry aldermen drew their pistols and killed the mayor at a City Council meeting. Then there were long years when organized crime was involved in the politics

of this town located across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

Earlier this year, Officer had his security guards videotape him as he arrested a City Hall secretary who was photocopying campaign literature for an opponent on a municipal machine. It made the evening television news.

"There's a variety of different forces who want to have control of the city's economic future and the economic resurgence we're experiencing," Officer said. But he may be vulnerable because it is not clear that there is an economic resurgence.

All that is left of many of the blue-collar jobs that built East St. Louis are grassless gray mounds of spent bauxite out to the horizon and abandoned brick behemoths from the days when brewers bottled beer instead of canning it. The rickety rafters of the stockyards say that most livestock now is bought and butchered farther west.

Unemployment officially tops 11 percent, but estimates of the true jobless rate range as high as 50 percent. As the jobs departed, so did most of the white people, and the total population has plummeted from a peak of 80,000 in 1950. Today, East St. Louis is 96 percent black.

Many a house stands forlorn on a block of vacant lots, often at apparent risk of being condemned and razed like its long-gone neighbors. Like others before him, Officer has not saved East St. Louis, either.

But now there is the big bond issue to fund Officer's ambitious and controversial plan to build a port, a plant to convert trash to energy and a residential and shopping complex, all across the river from booming downtown St. Louis. That's an uncommonly large investment here, and a lot of people began to vie for the privilege of controlling it.

Jordan, township supervisor and president of the school district, the city's largest employer, got into the race for mayor. He marshaled much of the regular Democratic Party organization against Officer, whom he previously had supported. He lost narrowly.

Jordan and the city treasurer, who was not renominated, sued under a state law, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971, that bars anyone who signed a petition to put an independent on the general election ballot from voting in a party primary for the same office. Several independent candidates were on the primary ballot for various offices.

Judge C. Glenn Stevens of the St. Clair County Circuit Court in Belleville, the county seat, ordered the East St. Louis elections board to compare the primary records with the independents' petitions. The board staff was still wading through the materials when Stevens ordered the general election postponed, five days before it was to take place.

Officer challenged the delay before a state appeals court. Then Jordan died of cancer. Most people thought he had pneumonia, said Philip Rice, one of Jordan's lawyers.

Meanwhile, the election board's inquiry revealed that 1,215 persons had both signed independents' petitions and voted in the Democratic primary.

Stevens ordered May 18 that the primary races for mayor and treasurer be rerun on July 14 and the general election on Aug. 25 on grounds that the number of unqualified voters exceeded the margins of victory.

He said Jordan should be on the ballot because of a 1943 Illinois law that gives party committees the right to name substitutes in the general election for candidates who die before the primary but win.

Stevens issued his order an hour after he received a copy of an appeals court ruling that the general election should proceed. While the elections board geared up for the primary, Officer went back to the appeals court to fight it.

In mid-June, the appeals court canceled the primary and ordered that the general election take place no later than Aug. 4. It said the appeal on the merits of Jordan's case could proceed normally.

The state Supreme Court has not acted on a request by Jordan's lawyers for permission to appeal the order setting the vote for Aug. 4.

Officer says that Jordan's lawsuit should have died with Jordan and that Judge Stevens erred by ordering a rerun of some but not all Democratic primary races.

The Rev. James Voelker, an East St. Louis native and Catholic priest here, takes a philosophical view of the political battling.

"Nothing has changed here," he said, "except the color of the people who get involved in these things, that the closest thing to corruption now is people hiring their friends and that people in politics don't get killed anymore.

"Other than that," he said, "this is all business as usual in East St. Louis."