Voters in the District and suburban Maryland go to the polls today in primary elections that will shape the leadership for much of the Washington area while testing the strength of development and abortion as political issues.

Although the elections are expected to produce no cataclysmic shifts in the workings of government in the District or those Maryland jurisdictions with hotly contested county executive or legislative races, the results may indicate what issues resound most strongly with voters in a region already feeling the effects of an economic slowdown.

For instance, the Democratic primary for Montgomery County executive has been widely perceived as a referendum on development, with challenger Neal Potter basing his campaign on criticisms that incumbent Sidney Kramer is too pro-business.

Development -- and campaign contributions from the real estate industry -- have also been issues in the five-way race for the Democratic mayoral nomination in the District, where front-runner John Ray has had to defend the many large donations he received from developers. {Other election stories, Page D1.}

In addition to mayoral nominations from the Democratic, Republican and D.C. Statehood parties, District voters also will nominate candidates for delegate to Congress. The most intense race for that nomination has been on the Democratic side, where the campaign of Eleanor Holmes Norton has been rocked by disclosures that she and her husband failed to file local income tax returns.

District voters also will nominate candidates for newly created shadow lobbying posts in Congress, several D.C. Council seats and the council chairmanship.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Montgomery and Prince George's counties decide hotly contested races for county executive, Congress and the General Assembly.

Polling places across the region open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

In Maryland, gubernatorial primaries feature Democratic incumbent William Donald Schaefer and challenger Fred Griisser, and Republicans Ross Z. Pierpont and William S. Shepard.

Yesterday, Schaefer made a rare comment on abortion, an issue he has carefully avoided but one that could sway several State House races in Maryland.

In an interview with radio station WBAL in Baltimore, Schaefer said abortion should be allowed in cases of incest or rape, adding that he disagrees with those who advocate an outright ban.

But Schaefer said yesterday that the news media puts too much importance on his opinions about abortion. "I keep asking . . . why a politician's involved in this question in the first place," the governor said. "This should be a personal thing."

Abortion has been a major issue in at least a half-dozen Senate races in the state, most of them in the Washington suburbs.

Although many of the elections are going down to the wire, one in the District marks the passing of an era, and another in Maryland could signal the advent of another.

The Democratic mayoral primary marks the first time in 12 years that Marion Barry has not appeared on that quadrennial ballot.

In Maryland's 5th Congressional District, the challenge by Alim Abdul Muhammed of nine-year incumbent Steny H. Hoyer in the Democratic primary has been viewed as part of the emergence of black political power in a jurisdiction whose population is estimated to be 50 percent black.

Observers were predicting at least moderate voter turnout.