ATLANTIC CITY - Former Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford held a commanding lead late yesterday in his quest to return to the helm of America's second-largest gambling resort.

Langford topped a field of three candidates in the Democratic mayoral primary; winning that party's primary is tantamount to being elected in the fall in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.

Langford told cheering supporters that he appeared to have won. Across town, incumbent Mayor Scott Evans said: "It doesn't look good."

But both men stopped short of making formal declarations, pending the count of more than 1,000 absentee ballots that have in past races determined the results.

The race is for the one year remaining on former Mayor Robert Levy's term. The Democrat resigned last fall and admitted he had embellished his Vietnam War service to fatten his veterans benefits checks. He is to be sentenced later this month.

There will be another election next year for a full four-year term as mayor.

John McQueen, former director of operations for the Atlantic City Special Improvement District, and a former mayoral candidate, ran unopposed in the Republican primary.

The stakes are high in this gambling mecca. Casino revenues fell last year for the first time in the 30-year history of legalized gambling in Atlantic City. The resort faces withering pressure from slots parlors in Pennsylvania and New York that continue to siphon off many of its most reliable customers, and a smoking ban on the casino floor will take effect in October, leading to fears of even bigger losses for the gambling houses.

But at the same time, three new mega-casinos are on the drawing board and a fourth is already being built, worth as much as $11 billion.