LOS ANGELES, JAN. 23 -- Gloria Molina and Art Torres, both liberal Democrats, have emerged from a crowded field of candidates and will face each other in a runoff election Feb. 19 for the distinction of becoming the first Hispanic Los Angeles County supervisor in this century.

Nearly complete returns from Tuesday's election in a new court-created supervisorial district gave Molina, 42, a Los Angeles City Council member, the lead with 34.6 percent of the vote. Torres, 44, a state senator considered by many to be the favorite in the nine-person race, was runner-up with 25.7 percent.

The combative Molina, widely considered the most militant candidate, credited her strong showing to a grass-roots campaign that depicted Torres as a political insider.

She and Torres agreed that he had been damaged by a late campaign flier sent out by another candidate, state Sen. Charles Calderon, drawing attention to Torres's two previous drunk-driving convictions. Since 1989, Torres has acknowledged that he is a "recovering alcoholic" and has openly discussed his drinking problem.

Sarah Flores, a longtime county civil servant and the only Republican in the race, finished third with 20.5 percent. Calderon was fourth with 15.9 percent, and the five other candidates divided slightly more than 3 percent of the vote.

Regardless of who wins, the runoff is certain to change the political direction of the nonpartisan county board, which for a decade has been ruled by a solidly conservative majority and on most issues will have a 3-to-2 liberal majority after the election. Molina and Torres, products of the militant, anti-war "Chicano power" movement of the 1970s, were the most liberal candidates in the race.

Both are committed to rescuing a declining system of health care and mental-health services. They were the only candidates who unreservedly supported distribution of condoms and bleach kits for cleaning hypodermic needles to prevent spread of the AIDS virus.

The winner will represent one of the most solidly Hispanic districts north of the Mexican border and be considered a national leader among Hispanics. The Board of Supervisors' annual budget of more than $10 billion is larger than those of all but a dozen states.

The new 1st Supervisorial District extends 25 miles from poor neighborhoods of downtown Los Angeles to affluent suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley. Its population is 1.8 million, 70 percent of Mexican or Central American ancestry. But only 371,000 persons are registered to vote, and fewer than 80,000 actually cast ballots.

The turnout may have reflected distraction caused by the Persian Gulf War and a relatively short campaign. Only five weeks ago, the Supreme Court upheld boundaries of the district, created to alleviate what a federal judge ruled was intentional discrimination against Hispanics.

Despite Molina's big lead in the first round of voting, she and Torres agreed today that the runoff is likely to be highly competitive. In seeking support from presumably more conservative voters who preferred Flores or Calderon, the two survivors are stressing support of the death penalty and other conservative positions on criminal justice issues to offset their liberal reputations.

"I'm the more mainstream candidate," Torres said.

"We're very close on the issues," Molina said. "The difference here is a style of politics. I work from the bottom up and Art Torres from the top down."

Molina served as Los Angeles field representative for Torres when he was a state Assembly member. But Torres supported another candidate against Molina in a 1982 Assembly race. She won, becoming the first Hispanic woman elected to the California legislature.

Torres had considerable support from environmental and law enforcement groups, but Molina had the backing of Democratic Reps. Edward R. Roybal and Esteban E. Torres.