When Alexandria City Council member Ellen Pickering spoke recently about next Tuesday's city elections for mayor and the six council seats, she referred to a campaign that has run "for the last five years."

"Well," she quickly corrected herself, "it seems like five years."

Indeed, many in the Northern Virginia city that has prided itself on its genteel political style may view Tuesday's balloting as the climax to what has already proved a tumultuous, seemingly endless year.

Since January, the city's top prosecutor resigned after two celebrated trials, the council's senior member was soundly defeated in the primary, voter unhappiness with taxes and assessments has become widespread, and conflicts among the mayor, council and city agencies have increased.

The campaign by the two candidates for mayor and the 16 council candidates has touched on those events, but much of the race has revolved around the personalities of the two mayoral candidates, incumbent Frank E. Mann and former mayor Charles E. Beatley.

It also has featured a strong challenge by the Republican Party, which for the first time in recent years has fielded a full slate of six candidates to challenge six Democrats and four independents.

Mann, 58, an independent, has been witty, charming, humble or combative, depending on his audience. In front of the Del Ray Citizens Association two weeks ago he was the aggressive defender of stable neghborhoods, speaking off-the-cuff in an area where speculators are seeking to take advantage of soaring property values and increasing tax assessments. Before the Old Town Civic Association the following evening, he was the cautious scholar, reading statistics to an audience deeply concerned about the potential impact of the redevelopment of the waterfront Torpedo Plant complex.

His opponent for mayor, Beatley, 62, a Democrat, fared badly in both sessions with the same kind of rambling, laconic discussions of taxes and budgets he had used during his three terms in office (1967-76). When the two candidates met for the last time Thursday in front of the League of Women Voters, however, Beatley dramatically changed his tactics.

Speaking in an uncharacteristically strong voice, Beatley blasted the "seedy occurrences" involving massage parlors and illegal gambling that he said had flourished during Mann's last three years in office.

The race for the three-year term as part-time mayor of the city of 119,000 has attracted the most attention and is expected to draw 17,000 voters to the polls Tuesday.

Equally significant has been the race for the six council seats currently split among four Democrats, one Republican and one independent.

One of the strongest -- and most costly -- races for the council has been waged by Democrat Nelson E. Greene Sr., a 64-year-old funeral home director who is given a strong chance to become the second black ever to sit on the council. His chances have been bolstered by a strong registration drive that has added hundreds of new voters.

Although most council candidates run under party labels, each partisan candidate typically stages his own race. All council seats are filled on an at-large basis for three-year terms.

Pickering, 49. an independent and one of three council incumbents in the race, has taken the strongest position against the proposed redevelopment of the Torpedo Plant complex along, the Potomac River. Her unyielding opposition to the proposals has won her friends in Old Town, but may have cot her support elsewhere.

Council member Donald C. Casey, 40, a Democrat and a lawyer, has received attention for pressing the council to take positions against illegal bingo operations and massage parlors in the city.

Republican council member Robert L. Calhoun, 41, drafted the resolution requiring a city spending limitation, and with Casey wrote the ordinance for a proposed cable television franchise. He is a leader of the revived city Republican Party, which this year for the first time is trying to win all six council seats.

Republican Carlyle C. Ring Jr., 47. is the former chairman of the city's embattled school board and has campaigned on the claim that he can combat the growing inability of the school board and council to agree on anything. A studious and quiet campaigner, he has a network of supporters based on his nine years on the board.

James P. Moran Jr., 33. a Senate budget analyst, defeated veteran council member Nicholas A. Colasanto in the Democratic primary in March. Moran speaks often about the management of the city's $88 million budget but has not campaigned on a tax-cutting platform.

Marian Van Landingham. 41. a Democrat and a former Senate statfer, is a former head of the Torpedo Plant Art Center. She says the city must win more state taxes back from Richmond. She suffered an embarrassment when one of her major proposals, the use of angle parking, was shown to be impossible because of the width of most city streets.

Republican Marlee Inman. 52, has support among the influential civic association leaders she met as an assistant to both Beatley, a Democrat, and state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr., a Republican.

David Speck, 33, a Republican, has criticized the recent council pay increase to $10.000 annually.

Democrat Ron Williams, 31. tells audience he has attended more civic and government meetings than any other nonincumbent in the last three years. "I was there," he often says.

Republican candidate Robert Hammerman, 44, has staked out a strong probusiness position, calling for the development of "the private sector" as a method of broadening the tax base to decrease city reliance on residential property taxes. Hammerman, a subiness consultant, has campaigned heavily in the "condo canyon." a group of condominiums in the city's west section, where he lives.

Republican Rose Berler, 53, often lectures groups in the virtues of selfreliance and individual intiative and has backing from some members of the local League of Women Voters, which she twice headed.

Democrat Barbara Joseph, 42, a former aide to state Del. Richard R.G. Hobson (D-Alexandria) said she would urge lower taxes by broadening the tax base, and work for a onecent sales tax increase to fund Metro.

Independent Alice Morgan, 35, often stresses social concerns and William B. Bill Hurd Jr., 28, another independent candidate, has made government efficiency his key issue.

Allen Brown, 49, the fourth independent, has rarely campaigned with the other candidates, and usually urges stronger citizen support for police and fire departments.