The small face -- flanked by smiling children in taffeta dresses and bow ties -- stares solemnly from the photo, far too serious for any 5-year-old celebrating at her own birthday party. At the time, relatives assumed the child's gravity could be traced to her mother's death six months before. Her aunt, Aimee Pratt, disagreed then and now.

"She never liked birthday parties," says Pratt, 69, of the child with the long, ribboned braids. "I think she thought the games were silly."

Forty-one years later, Sharon Pratt Dixon still has little patience for games. And it still shows on her face.

It's ironic that the woman who would be mayor -- famous for her reserve, her icy control -- hasn't developed a politician's fine-tuned face. Inspire it to smile and the effect is stunning. Aim a tough question or seemingly foolish proposal at it, and it collapses into a scowl, a grimace that may snap, "Excuse me?" or unashamedly confess, "I never thought of that."

The nakedness of Dixon's face struck some Washingtonians last February, when it revealed her disgust for a mayor who found a drug arrest insufficient motivation for resigning; her contempt for an administration too immobilized, too political, to demand that he step down.

With Dixon, what you see is often what she's thinking. It isn't always pretty.

"Sharon is not campaign rhetoric -- she's at times very sharp, even caustic, in her response," says Ruby McZier, a local attorney and trustee of the Democratic National Committee, of which Dixon, who was its treasurer from 1985 to 1989, was the first black woman officer. "Some people need flowery language, embellishments. Sharon minces no words."

"She lacks warmth," says Ann Heuer, chairman of the D.C. Republican Committee. "I can remember her speaking at some benefit. ... She was carrying on. I said, 'Gee ... she's coming on a bit strong.' It felt like she was performing on a stage ... that she had everything programmed."

There's an edge to Sharon Pratt Dixon, to the no-fuss hairstyle she's worn for decades, the sensibly fashionable suits. To the deep voice that, when she's on a roll, can blast even the faintest fumes of political expediency clean out of a room.

"The only way for me to be comfortable was to do it the way I did," says Dixon, 46, of her uncompromising -- some called it strident -- condemnation of Mayor Marion Barry and the D.C. Council, three of whose members she defeated in the Democratic primary. Now widely hailed as prescient and courageous, Dixon's condemnation at the time was dismissed by some as suicidal; by others as a desperate bid for attention by a last-place challenger with few prospects and less cash.

Whether her outrage was sincere, smart or both, she won the Democratic nomination and, in this 70 percent Democratic city, the catbird seat to take the mayoralty.

Diplomacy, she says now, would have been useless anyway. "On a gut level, the public can read people. The best thing to do is go ahead and present yourself."

So who is this woman, who's sitting, legs crossed, on a peach sofa in a sunny home near Rock Creek Park, alternately sipping coffee and orange juice? This home girl who says she'd be a size 6 "if it weren't for these hips," and who hates that her rigorous schedule demands that she wear "matronly" low heels? Who says she gets on her knees to pray each night, and wryly wonders aloud if actor Denzel Washington is "as fine in person as he is on the screen"?

This woman who insists the thing that would most surprise people about her is that she's so romantic?

She is, we are to believe, Sharon Pratt Dixon. Maybe she's the one whom freelance journalist and former Dixon neighbor Marilyn "Trish" Robinson uses words like "vulnerable" and "shy" to describe. Or the one whose ex-husband, Arrington L. Dixon, says she possesses a "refreshing innocence {people} don't see."

"She was bookish, and bookish people can be awkward," recalls Robinson.

"My brother and Sharon were the same type, the ones who would say, 'Do I use my left leg when I do the boogaloo?' I remember a Sweet Sixteen dance -- Sharon was going out, she had on a satin taffeta dress, one of those 1950s dresses with the big skirt, teeny little waist, strapless.

"I said, 'Dag, you're gorgeous!' And I remember her saying, 'Really, Trish, really? Don't lie to me.' It was the little bookworm stepping out as Miss Hollywood ... like, 'Can I pull this off?' There's a wonderful vulnerability about her that's so precious. A remarkable combination of intelligence and vulnerability."

This is the stuff of cinema and fairy tales -- the quiet intellectual doffs her glasses and becomes a knockout. It's easy to find a touch of the storybook in Dixon's story -- the egghead's vindication; the child raised by an undemonstrative stepmother; the motherless youngster who could become guiding light to an entire city.

Dixon, like other '50s girls, grew up, got married and had children -- daughters Aimee, 21, and Drew, 19 -- who still live with her. She cloaked the vulnerability in a sometimes-brittle cocoon. The intelligence she used to help propel her then-husband to the chairmanship of the City Council and herself from associate counsel to a vice presidency at Pepco, the first female to attain the position.

Cast as a political newcomer, she's the most inside of outsiders -- elected four times by her party as the D.C. Democratic national committeewoman; rising to the upper ranks of the national party and becoming the first woman and black to be chosen party treasurer. Eight years ago, Dixon managed the unsuccessful mayoral campaign of her late friend and mentor Patricia Roberts Harris, who died in 1985 of breast cancer -- the same disease that killed Dixon's mother.

She became Candidate Dixon in April 1989, after she decided it was silly waiting for someone else to clean up the mess in her home town. The first candidate to announce her intentions, she quit a $140,000-a-year job at Pepco for the iffy possibility of earning $90,705 as mayor.

She began to use her face in earnest. Suddenly, the fact that it revealed several Sharon Pratt Dixons mattered a lot more.

"I don't know if anybody really knows her well," says attorney Carl Rowan Jr., a former John Ray campaign staffer who says Dixon can be "tough to deal with at times. Some of that I attribute to if you get a woman in the top position who's kicking people in the butt, people will say she's a bitch."

He pauses. "But she is tough as nails."

Not so tough, however, that her friend Robinson isn't afraid for her.

"I've interviewed hundreds of politicians ... and all of them jumped off the track at some point in terms of how they handled power and fame," she says. "Marion Barry started out untouched, innocent. ... It's so subtle and seductive, the car you drive around in, the politician's natural tendency toward isolation, the hangers-on and leeches."

Dixon, she says, is still herself -- today. "I still see Sharon Pratt, a bookish little girl with a sense of human consciousness, with 'I've got to help people who have less than I have.' If you have a strong family base, power and fame won't corrupt you. Sharon's has always been strong."

Robinson's voice is sad.

"But the forces are waiting to destroy her. And even the best of them fall."

Early Obsessions Dixon says her first memory -- of her father driving her away from the home where they'd lived with her mother -- is veiled by rain, "or tears, I honestly don't know which." Mildred "Peggy" Petticord Pratt died at age 27, when Sharon was 4, her sister Benaree ("Bennie"), 2. That alone -- plus the fact that the young girls were cared for by their father, paternal aunt and grandmother -- was enough to make Dixon different. But there was more.

There was her lack of enthusiasm for dolls, jacks and skipping rope; her preference for the library over the playground. Other kids liked TV; Sharon seemed obsessed with it, so much so that when she felt sleep tug at her, she'd pry her eyes open with her fingers. In her aspiring-actress phase, she'd wake Bennie up in the middle of the night, forcing her to listen as she read plays aloud. Bennie, the more outgoing and flirtatious sister, dreamed of dates with singers Smokey Robinson and Eddie Kendricks. Sharon sighed over the prospect of playing major league ball with Negro League legend Satchel Paige; of being Peter Pan or Superman, of flying.

And then there were the training wheels.

Carlisle Pratt, then a law student, had bought matching, maroon-and-white Schwinns for his girls. Bennie, then 4, was thrilled. Six-year-old Sharon's response: "I don't want the training wheels."

"But they're to keep you from getting hurt," Pratt explained.

Sharon looked at him. "Did you have training wheels when you were a boy?" No. "And did you get hurt?"

Helpless, Pratt nodded yes, "once or twice."

"Then let me try," she said.

First she ran into a tree. The next day, she scraped her knee. No tears, her aunt recalls, just, "I hurt my knee; wipe it off, it's bleeding."

"My heart was in my mouth," recalls Aimee Pratt. "She kept saying, 'I can do it.' ... The fourth day, she was riding that bike like anything."

Carlisle Pratt's rapt stories of Sharon's mother -- a spirited, beautifully coiffed woman who kept their home smelling of fresh-cut flowers -- suggested to his daughter what types of women were best. Strong women. Smart women. Women who made their opinions known.

Both girls absorbed their father's views on "our mother, on men, on the role we as women could play," says Bennie, now a Harvard Law School administrator. Thanks to his glossy images of their mother, it's possible, she says hesitantly, that their mother's influence was as positive in death as it might have been had she lived.

Today, the serious health problems of retired District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Carlisle Pratt haunt the candidate, whose demanding schedule allows little time for visits. Life, she says, "feels close, like I don't have lots of space to breathe. ... I haven't been able to be as good a daughter as I should be."

Her family's commitment to hard work and values -- "{they} just never tolerated laziness of any kind" -- fuels her drive. After their mother's death, Sharon and Bennie lived for six years with Aunt Aimee and "Mama" Hazel Drew Pratt, Carlisle's mother, in the 100 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW. The neighborhood was one of segregated Washington's many all-black enclaves. Largely composed of government workers and teachers, it derived most of its status from its proximity to Howard University. When she was 10, Dixon's father -- who'd opened a small law practice after selling produce and working as a clerk at the Library of Congress to put himself through law school -- married again and moved the girls to a house a mile away. His second wife, Jean McKissick Pratt, was a woman family observers describe as emotionally chilly but a capable caregiver. The couple later divorced.

The idea that hers was a "silver spoon" existence, as suggested by her Republican opponent, former D.C. police chief Maurice Turner, puzzles Dixon and others.

"I don't understand quite what he means; our backgrounds are not too dissimilar," she says, her scowl in full force. "My grandmother and aunt were government workers; my father worked a government job and at the farmer's market to put himself through school. It wasn't until I was a grown woman that he became a judge."

But the image persists.

"I hear negative things in the community -- 'Sharon thinks she's better because she's always lived in Upper Northwest,' 'She's never had to struggle,' " says Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Aurelia Corbett King, an at-large D.C. Democratic Committee member who has worked with Dixon, the group's national committeewoman, since 1976.

"It doesn't matter where you are, if you're a single parent, it's a struggle. ... Speaking woman to woman, there were times when I could tell it was hard for her."

Former secretary of the army Clifford Alexander, president of the Alexander and Associates consulting firm and a Dixon supporter, finds the silver spoon label insulting.

"It used to be ... a badge of courage that people would encourage their offspring to get themselves educated, to get as good a job as possible, to be serious," says Alexander, who met Dixon in 1974 when she worked on his unsuccessful mayoral campaign against Walter Washington.

"Turner is saying that because her family has done those things, they're from a privileged class. In the first place, it's no sin to be from a privileged class. And secondly, {Dixon} ain't, really."

The mere perception, however, could be damaging.

"{Dixon's} profile fits that of several people who've run for office and lost -- Patricia Roberts Harris, Cliff Alexander," says Ron Walters, chairman of Howard University's political science department and a 25-year Washington area resident.

"These people ... were judged to be aloof, not connected to grass roots, bourgeoisie. When you look at the areas where she didn't attract many votes, they're the blackest wards in the city, the lowest-income."

Some say that while Turner talks about class, the real issue is skin color. The political impact of the latter -- a powerful issue in the African American community for centuries -- may be underestimated, Walters suggests.

"Skin color ... is one of the things people use to make up their minds {politically}. It's a shame. ... It came from slavery, from the fact that those blacks with the lightest skin were perceived to be closest to the white power structure, and often they were."

Adds King, who is fair-skinned: "Some {light-skinned African Americans} have a stronger sense of being black. ... Lighter-skinned people always had to work harder to prove they were part of the African American community. ... You want to be accepted by your own people more than anything else. I never wanted to be punished because I was lighter. I don't want {Dixon} to be punished."

To avoid that, says Walters, Dixon "has to reach out. She has to ... make herself at home among all shades of people, all classes of people. It's an economic thing as much as anything else. The blackest wards tend to be the poorest. And I think she is sensitive to that."

Dixon, Walters continues, will overcome the light-skinned stereotype because "she doesn't seem to have a lot of anxiety about skin color -- she gives you the feeling that she's comfortable with who she is. She's just Sharon."

A Love for the City Twenty-eight years ago, that self-content was the second thing that prompted Howard University math-physics major Arrington Dixon, who was riding a northbound New Hampshire Avenue bus, to introduce himself to a fellow passenger, a petite pre-law student he'd observed for weeks.

The first thing? "She was, and is, very attractive," says Dixon, 47, in a "You have to ask?" tone. "And I liked her style -- in charge. ... She didn't take any stuff."

They married in 1966. The next year, the couple who had shared passionate discussions about the District's need for home rule decided jointly that Arrington, not Sharon, should pursue politics. Six years after an unsuccessful bid for a school board seat in 1968, he was elected to the City Council.

There are those who have suggested that Sharon -- who stayed home with the girls before beginning her career in private practice, as an Antioch Law School professor and finally at Pepco -- fueled Arrington's political career, pushing a husband some felt was less gifted than she.

The suggestion rankles the candidate.

"I think it's a very superficial assessment," Dixon says crisply. "We both had a real love for the city and decided he should seek office for a lot of reasons -- he was a very extroverted personality. It didn't occur to me to be the one up there because of my desire to have a family. ... And to be honest with you, in 1974, I was not happy about {Arrington's decision to run for council} because I'd had a taste of how demanding political life was. The girls were still very young."

She pauses. "I never pushed Arrington."

Robinson, who was friend to them both, agrees. "They reminded me of Berry Gordy and Diana Ross -- two super achievers together. I never would have thought that Arrington wouldn't have thought of doing those things, being on the school board and on City Council. ... He was just that kind of black guy."

In 1982, the Dixons divorced because, they say now, they grew apart. "Whether you mean to or not, you grow, but you don't necessarily match," says Sharon. "I'm certain political life didn't help."

Probably not, her ex-husband agrees. "You know that song that says, 'You are my hero'? asks Arrington, now owner of a professional services and consulting firm. "You can get lost in someone else's shadow. At least that's how the public saw it. ... I think I benefited from the relationship more than she did, being the woman behind the more visible man."

Ask about his ex-wife's alleged coldness and he hesitates.

"When you take on tough jobs," he begins, "people forget you have softness. ... It's unfortunate, society doesn't always support that in women -- the softness. The tenderness. I think if you want to see the best example of that in Sharon, you should look at her children."

In some ways, the daughters are reminiscent of Sharon and Bennie -- Aimee, the elder, seems more inward and thoughtful; Drew is the outgoing, flashy one. Together they are, says Drew, "our mother's heart."

Like the mother she doesn't remember, Dixon could be a tough act to follow. Aimee says that's partly why she chose a career far from her mother's: fashion design. Drew recalls her mother's story of her birth, how nurses had placed the newborn in a bowl-like container. "She says I was in the bowl and I was, like, looking at her. They'd move me around and no matter where they put the bowl, I was staring at her. She was my role model, instantly."

Today, Dixon has little time for mothering, or for the New York businessman she's dating, whose name she hopes "will stay out of the papers at least until after the election." "I can't even do the simple things -- grocery shopping, easy things," she says. "I don't even drive myself anywhere. Some people think that's a great thing but it's not."

Still, she's learning. "Now every time I see her, she has this incredible smile," says Walters. "I saw her at a mayoral forum and before she left, she put on that great smile, shook every hand she could shake on her way out the door. I said, 'Uh-huh, she's learning to use that.' "

Not that the scowl isn't very much in evidence when Turner and company suggest she's weak on crime. That she'd be weak on anything, she says, "doesn't seem plausible. ... It just doesn't fit."

Dixon's strength, says her friend McZier, is representative of that of "a large number of black women in the District of Columbia whose ... voices are being heard on issues that affect the community and world. It's a group that has not been highlighted in a very positive way."

If she wins, Dixon will have one of the most prominent voices in the nation. But even some of her supporters wonder if she, or anybody, can deal with the problems D.C.'s next mayor will face.

"I don't know if Jesus could pull this off," says one observer. "The deck is being stacked against her. Walter Washington never left the problems for Marion Barry that Barry is leaving for his successor. ... Barry is telling people on his staff that {Dixon} will be a one-term mayor; that he'll be back." (Responds Barry press secretary Lurma Rackley: "That doesn't sound like anything I've heard {the mayor} say. ... I've never heard him speculate on anybody's term.")

Of course, the fact that running the District is no job for sissies may be what Dixon relishes most.

It was 40 years ago, on a park bench near their Rhode Island Avenue home, that Bennie Pratt Wiley first learned of her sister's passion for challenges. Recent widower Carlisle Pratt had sat his two daughters down for a serious chat.

"He expressed to us ... that Sharon, though only 2 1/2 years older, had the responsibility to take care of both of us," says Wiley. "I remember I was staring into space, wondering when he'd finish lecturing so I could go the store."

Then she glanced at her sister's ever-transparent face.

"Sharon -- she has these big, penetrating eyes, and you could like, see her taking it in. That it was a real charge, a real challenge."

Sometimes, Dixon still seems like that child.

"This is not a city with a lot of profiles in political courage," says Rowan. "She not only took on the king, she took on the whole political establishment. ... She fought these battles with no one on her side, with the pure force of her personality. And there is no way in the world that I believe that anyone other than her thought she was going to win this thing a year ago.

"She believed in herself and she went out and took it."