After weeks under the radar, the race to become the next Montgomery County District Attorney suddenly has been overtaken by two names: Bill Cosby and Kathleen Kane.

Neither the comedian nor the state attorney general are candidates, but each could become high-profile prosecutions for the winner of next month's election.

And both candidates know it.

Last week, Democrat Kevin Steele and Republican Bruce L. Castor Jr. attracted national attention with TV ads in which they criticized each other for the handling of claims that Cosby sexually assaulted a woman in Cheltenham a decade ago - allegations still viable under the statute of limitations.

"All the sudden, people in Montgomery County who might not have thought much about the race are discovering that Montgomery County is in the news," said Randall Miller, a political analyst and St. Joseph's University professor.

Both Castor and Steele have ties to Risa Vetri Ferman, the incumbent district attorney whom they hope to succeed. Castor was Ferman's predecessor and boss. Steele is now Ferman's top assistant. Both men also rose through the ranks of the office and tout its 98 percent conviction rate during their tenures.

Castor, 54, spent the last eight years as county commissioner, has mounted unsuccessful bids for attorney general and governor, and won the endorsement of a statewide association of county detectives. He thrives in the limelight, but said he no longer has statewide political ambitions and wants to return to a job he loved.

"I miss the excitement of it," he said. "I miss doing the cases in the field and in court itself, and the satisfaction that came with it."

Steele, 48, appears more cautious in the spotlight and describes himself as a career prosecutor, not a politician. He touts the endorsements of local police unions across the county and said he would focus on creating partnerships to prevent crime. "One of the reasons I'm running for district attorney is to continue on the good work we've been doing in our communities," he said.

With 15 years in elected office, Castor arguably has more name recognition. But voter registration falls in Steele's favor: Democrats outnumber Republicans by 47,000 in Montgomery County.

The job pays $172,000.

Ferman, a two-term Republican, was elected in 2007 to replace Castor. She is running for Common Pleas judge.

In August, she charged Kane, the Democratic attorney general, with perjury and other crimes for leaking confidential information to embarrass a political rival and lying about it under oath.

Steele is leading the prosecution of Kane. "We're confident in the case that we have," he said.

Steele said he would continue to work alongside Bucks County First Assistant District Attorney Michelle Henry, who was brought in as a special prosecutor on the case. Their team includes other Montgomery County prosecutors and an assistant Bucks County prosecutor.

Castor, in an interview last week, said he would review the Kane case and determine how to proceed, personally prosecuting Kane with the help of one assistant.

"The first thing is, assistant D.A.'s from other counties that were brought in would be sent on their way," he said, because Montgomery County should not need help.

Though Cosby has become a campaign issue, it is not yet known whether the next district attorney will have a chance to prosecute him.

Castor declined to charge the comedian in 2005, when Temple University employee Andrea Constand alleged he drugged and molested her in his Cheltenham mansion.

Cosby has since been accused of sexual assault by dozens of women nationwide. Nearly all of the claims are too old to be prosecuted but the 12-year statute on felony-level sex crimes for Constand's allegations won't expire until January.

Cosby has never been charged with a crime, and has denied that he assaulted any women.

The Inquirer has reported he has been quietly shopping for a Philadelphia-area criminal defense attorney. On Friday, citing unnamed sources, CBS3 said an active criminal investigation is ongoing. But Ferman has declined to confirm or deny such a probe, except to say said prosecutors have a responsibility to review past decisions if new information is made available.

Steele spoke out about Cosby for the first time last week, claiming Castor's decade-old decision is an example of his attitude toward victims and pointing out that Castor had reports from other accusers who could have testified in the case in 2005.

"He's throwing [Constand] under the bus, and that is not the role the chief law enforcement officer for Montgomery County should have," Steele said.

Castor called the attack a "desperate" political move and said he stands by his decision that there was insufficient evidence when he reviewed the case.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with the D.A.'s Office reviewing the Cosby case based on new evidence," he said. "What's wrong is to say that I was in a position where I could have anticipated what was going to happen."

In an interview last week, Castor criticized the current state of the District Attorney's Office, which has more than 100 attorneys and investigators and a budget of nearly $15 million. He said he respects Ferman, his former first assistant, but added that Steele is accountable for day-to-day operations of the office.

Castor cited missteps in high-profile cases, including the decision to drop rape charges against former GOP chairman Robert Kerns due to a misread lab report and an incorrect conclusion that the victim had been drugged.

"I think that the reputation that we built up over all those years has begun to suffer, and I would like to rebuild that," he said.

Steele acknowledged mistakes in the Kerns case, but said he is proud that his office responded by handing the case to the attorney general for prosecution and creating new positions and procedures to increase accountability.

Steele, a former Republican, also said other positive changes have occurred since Castor left. "We've done away with politics in the office," he said. "Everyone is there to do the right thing."

Turnout will likely be low in the off-year Nov. 3 election, said Miller, the St. Joseph's University professor. But attention on Cosby and Kane could make voters notice the Montgomery County contest, he said.

"Voter interest in these kinds of races is low," he said, "but this race in some ways might be a little different."

610-313-8116

@Lmccrystal

Staff writer Jessica Parks contributed to this article.