BROWARD COUNTY, FLA. -- Not far from the local sheriff's office, the afternoon regulars bellied up to the counter at one of Broward County's best-known landmarks -- the topless doughnut shop tucked in among the fast-food emporiums on South Federal Highway.

Waitress Lisa Kellenberger, clad in a pink ruffled bikini bottom, switched on the tube to the "Geraldo" show, hoping to catch the heavily publicized appearance of County Sheriff Nick Navarro, who was making the rounds of the national talk shows last week to discuss his obscenity arrest of the rap group 2 Live Crew.

The patrons were disappointed. The television station had decided to save the taped appearance for a ballyhooed "special" this week.

Kellenberger shrugged and giggled. Slick Nick, she said, must be getting a percentage of the profits from the soaring record sales that followed his now-famous raid at a Broward nightclub -- the first arrests of rappers in the current wave of nationwide publicity over allegedly obscene lyrics.

The spotlight focused on Navarro and 2 Live Crew has finally given this obscure county, lost in Florida's wastelands between the silk-stocking wealth of Palm Beach and the flamingo pink glitz of Miami, the identity it long had sought. "Banned in Broward" was not exactly what the county's promoters had in mind. But while this amorphous sprawl of suburban subdivisions, shopping malls and the occasional porn shop may be an unlikely venue for a looming national battle over free speech vs. obscenity, at least Navarro's dragnet has put it on the map.

People here speak of Broward as being "wedged" between its famous neighbors, as if the mapmakers drew it in as an afterthought.

"When I came here nine years ago," said Gary Stein, a columnist who writes about Broward for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Broward's largest city, "the first thing I saw was a topless laundromat and I remember thinking, 'Whoaa, what is this place?' "

Stein chronicles Broward's quirks with glee. Most of Broward's 1.3 million residents are transplanted northerners, many of them retirees, who live in bedroom towns with names like Coral Springs and Plantation. "Most of Broward is new. There are no neighborhoods like the kind you're used to in Chicago or Philadelphia," he said. "Everybody who lives here thinks they're just passing through. There is a real feeling of impermanence to the place."

The impermanence, some say, makes Broward residents more tolerant, which is why the brouhaha over 2 Live Crew seems so out of place.

In fact, tolerance has a history in this county. In the 1930s and '40s, Meyer Lansky openly operated numbers rackets here. By the '60s and '70s, college students' wild spring breaks had added new chapters to legends of permissiveness along the Fort Lauderdale beaches.

Even the county's namesake has a story. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, an early Florida governor, got his start running guns to Cuba on the eve of the Spanish-American War.

The last five years have produced an even more imaginative array of businesses: a topless check cashing service (where, for a generous fee, customers could chat up a topless hostess while waiting for their money), a topless video arcade, and, of course, R-Donuts, which opened in 1985 promising "pretty girls and the world's best cup of coffee."

"This was a very exotic and far-out place for people to come," said George Platt, a lawyer and former chairman of the Broward County Democratic Party. "There was an element of anything goes. This was a place where people came to let their hair down and do things they couldn't do in Newport, Rhode Island."

If this seems an unreal setting for a national showdown on obscenity, the central players in the drama are even more unlikely -- Navarro, a flamboyant sheriff who thrives on publicity, and Jack Thompson, a crusading anti-porn lawyer who likens himself to Batman.

Navarro, who was born in Havana, once coached Al Pacino on the finer points of playing a Cuban drug dealer for the movie "Scarface" and auditioned for a television role of his own on "Miami Vice."

Even his friends describe him as a combination of southern sheriff and Latin caudillo, or strongman. Long before he was elected in 1985, Navarro had a reputation for being audacious. As a chief of the sheriff's department's organized crime division, Navarro and his deputies once "invaded" the Bahamas on a drug case much to the dismay of conventional thinkers in the State Department.

As sheriff, Navarro is Broward's most powerful public official. His style of law enforcement is unusual, and the stories about his escapades are legion. His chemists have manufactured crack in the department's laboratory for use in sting operations. Under court order to relieve overcrowding in his jail, he has angered federal judges by housing prisoners in tents.

Navarro dresses in well-tailored suits and wears a little American flag in his lapel. His office wall is lined with a large collection of framed and autographed cartoons that lampoon him for his ego and publicity stunts, and he cheerfully tells a visitor that he can't wait to get the latest effort that appeared in the Miami Herald last week. That drawing features him, clutching a billy club and looking like a pit bull, on the cover of a record album titled: NICK NAVARRO: "As Nasty As He Wanna Be," a takeoff on the title of the 2 Live Crew album that started the fuss.

While Navarro is not one to pass up a headline, lawyer Thompson clearly considers the campaign against rappers to be a moral cause.

Thompson says that the lyrics contain violent imagery that encourages abuse of women and children. A soft-spoken lawyer who works out of his Coral Gables home, Thompson is a born-again Christian. He also wears a Batman wristwatch. In sending documents to opponents, he also has been known to attach a photocopy of his driver's license, with a photo of Batman pasted over his own, just to make sure they know who they're dealing with.

"I have sent my opponents pictures of Batman to remind them I'm playing the role of Batman," Thompson explains. "Just like Bruce Wayne helped the police in the movie, I have had to assist the sheriff of Broward County."

Thompson has, in fact, "assisted" all 67 county sheriffs in Florida as well as Gov. Bob Martinez (R) by supplying them late last year with copies of the lyrics of 2 Live Crew's hot-selling album, "As Nasty As They Wanna Be."

Martinez publicly denounced the group and urged the state attorney's office to use racketeering laws to prosecute them. The state attorney declined, saying it was a matter for the locals. Enter Navarro.

In February, Navarro went into civil court in search of a judicial opinion on whether the lyrics of 2 Live Crew's album qualified as obscene under Florida law. Broward County Circuit Judge Mel Grossman found the lyrics "probably obscene."

That was enough for Navarro. He dispatched his deputies to the county's record stores and warned sales clerks that any sale of the offending album could bring arrest.

At this point, the rappers' lawyers went to work and sued Navarro in federal court.

In a hearing in May, Bruce Rogow, the band's lawyer, introduced into evidence sexually explicit magazines and video tapes purchased from an adult bookstore less than a mile from the judge's court and presented testimony that the rappers' music had artistic value. His case did not succeed, and on June 6 U.S. District Judge Jose Gonzalez found the lyrics obscene.

Four days later, Navarro's deputies staked out a Hollywood, Fla., nightspot, Club Futura, to catch 2 Live Crew's act. The deputies videotaped the performance before an adults-only crowd and swooped down on band members Luther Campbell and Chris Wongwon as the pair drove down Broward's Hollywood Boulevard after the show.

Rogow, who is appealing the federal ruling and fighting the criminal charges, characterizes the entire episode as "an aberration."

"You can't explain it," he said. "It is inconsistent with the whole tone of the county."

Rogow finds some consolation that the added publicity has only boosted sales, further thwarting the crusade against 2 Live Crew. Just as "Banned in Boston" helped sell books in an earlier era, "Banned in Broward" is making 2 Live Crew as hot as they wanna be.

The flap has turned into a traveling road show, with the various characters playing "Nightline" and the network morning talk shows. Last week, Campbell, Thompson and Navarro traveled to New York to tape "Donahue" and "Geraldo," although Campbell was the only one who played both shows.

Back in Broward, some of Navarro's constituents, who usually affectionately forgive their sheriff's yearning for publicity, grumbled that enough was enough. It's not as if Broward had temporarily run out of criminals to pursue. There were 115 murders in the county last year and 6,202 aggravated assaults, although not all of those were within the sheriff's jurisdiction.

At a local retirement community, residents were tiring of it all.

"I think Slick Nick should stay at home," said Viola Andresen, 73. "He's just looking for publicity."

Down at R-Donuts, the coffee flowed on and Kellenberger said she didn't know what to make of it. "I hear the police are going to start messing with this place," she said ominously, although no one seemed too worried about that one. "They're doing so much craziness. These guys in here like their coffee. They're just sitting and reading their newspapers, and it's so quiet in here."

Quiet it is. The doughnut shop, being in the business of selling doughnuts, opens at 6 a.m. and closes promptly after the evening rush hour. For those worried about the caloric consequences of sugary confection, wholesome bran muffins are offered.