Three city council candidates are trailed by full-time police bodyguards. A shadowy underworld figure has been arrested and charged with attempting to bribe one of the three. The mayor has asked for Justice Department intervention because he believes black voters may harassed on Tuesday when they go to the polls.

Welcome to Richmond, capitol of the Old Dominion, whose reputation for civility and racial harmony has been shattered in recent days by a bitter council election. The contest has shaken this city of 219,000 with threats of violence and divided it anew along racial lines.

"It's the worst I've ever seen," says Henry Marsh, Richmond's first black mayor, who contends wealthy whites are trying to reassert political control over the city, which they lost to blacks in 1977, Marsh accuses the whites of using false accusations and subtle race-baiting.

Marsh's opponents, in turn, charge that it is the mayor, a shrewd political pro with ties to the Carter administration, who has fanned the flames of racism in order to draw out normally apathetic black voters and preserve his slim 5-to-4 hold on the city council.

The bitter contest suggests the increasing difficulties that blacks, who have captured several big city halls in recent years, must cope with to maintain power and prosperity in the face of an oncoming recession that economists say will hit older cities hardest.

Like many other cities, Richmond faces shrinking revenues, soaring property taxes and an incipient taxpayer revolt. The city has lost about a fourth of its white population in the last 10 years, driven away by a real estate tax rate ($2.12 per $100) more than double that of surrounding jurisdictions and a public school system that critics contend is deteriorating. j

At stake Tuesday, both sides agree, is more than the question of who will rule Richmond for the next two years because the new council also will redistrict the city's nine wards. Given the city's nearly 50-50 split between black and white populations, whoever wins a majority presumbaly can redraw district boundaries to guarantee their ascendancy until at least 1992.

"It's plain and simple," says Claudette Black McDaniel, a black, state-employed social worker who is one of Marsh's strongest backers among members of the council. "The people who win will draw the lines. The white power structure wants to do it but they can't if we're here."

It is McDaniel's district just south of the James River, a district that is 60 percent black, that has become the focus of attention and turmoil in this election.

Her main opponent is Drew Gillespie, a white mechanical engineer for Philip Morris Inc., the city's largest tobacco company. Most observers believe Gillespie cannot draw much more than the 40 percent white vote. But there is a potential spoiler in the race, Frank, J. Wilkins St., a black who could siphon off enough balck votes from McDaniel to give her white foe a victory.

Wilkins, a soft-spoken father of six who works as a messenger for another tobacco company, denies he is out to play spoiler and McDaniel's supporters say they are not worried about his impact. Nonetheless, his candidacy has triggered most of the heat from both sides.

Two weeks ago, Marsh charged Wilkins had received secret financial backing from a white-controlled political group -- a charge Wilkins hotly denies. Then last week, city police arrested a former FBI informer who goes by the name of August Moon after a local grand jury indicted him on a charge of offering Wilkins a bribe to quit the race. Moon, who is free on bail denies the charge.

Wilkins, presently under 24-hour state police guard, also says Moon threatened his life but won't discuss the details or say how much money was offered for his withdrawal.

Moon, who was recruited by federal authorities while serving a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder in New Jersey in 1972, is reported to have helped crack a number of police corruption and drug cases in various locations. What makes his involvement in Richmond even more intriguing is his relationship with the mayor.

When Moon was prosecuted here earlier this year on a federal pistol possession charge, Marsh wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti asking for an impartial investigation and citing the "outstanding contributions he [Moon] has made to the Richmond community."

Marsh has yet to comment on his relationship with Moon and did not return repeated phone calls from a reporter. McDaniel, who says she has received telephone threats on her life, also has a city police bodyguard as does a white candidate in another district where race is not an issue.

Another key character in the election drama is the Richmond News Leader, the afternoon newspaper here whose traditionally conservative editorial page has lashed out against Marsh and McDaniel, and endorsed five council candidates, all of them white. It has accused the black council majority of: "Ineptitude. Embarassment. Polarization. Duplicity. Skulduggery. Bickerins. Recrimination."

Black political leaders claim it is the newspaper that lowered the level of this year's debate to personal insults and created an atmosphere in which racial hatreds have grown and festered.

"They've pitted blacks against whites on almost every issue," says M. Philmore Howlette, chairman of the black Crusade for Voters.

"We're an easy target for those who don't like the things we say," responds editorial page editor Ross McKenzie dismissing the accusations as "standard political stuff at election time."

Word recently leaked out to McDaniels supporters that Gillespie's poll wokers plan a widespread challenge of blacks showing up to vote Tuesday. Under city election laws, those who lack proper identification or who changed their addresses more than six months ago but neglected to reregister could be disqualified.

Concerned that such a challenge could reduce the black vote significantly, Marsh contacted the Justice Department's voting rights section on Friday to complain about "possible voter intimidation" and to ask for federal monitors. Department spokesman John Wilson said it cannot send official observers but it may post a federal attorney to Richmond for the day "to be available."

Gillespie, who says he fears voters may be imported into the district to vote against him, says his poll workers will try to "ensure the integrity of the electoral process" but adds, "We won't harass or intimidate anybody."

Old personal feuds also have tinged the election. William J. Leidinger, the white former city manager who was fired by the black council majority two years ago for "noncooperation," is running for one council seat. Leidinger, now a phone company executive, says he wants to give the city the benefit of his long experience in government, but opponents say they fear his principal motive is revenge.

The widening chasm between the races here is evident in this year's endorsements. While the city's dominant white and black political groups have traditionally endorsed at least one candidate from the opposite race in the past, this time neither has done so.

"It's a sad commentary," says Howlette, who says his group decided not to back one of Leidinger's white opponents for fear of costing her votes in her white-dominated ward. "The way things are now, it could have been the kiss of death for her," he says.

Another sign of the times is that the biracial Richmond Voters Alliance has decided to endorse no candidates, Local businessman Laurence Levy, who heads the group, says the decision is the result of discontent with both sides. Levy contends that the black council majority, despite its claims of opening up the city for biracial participation, has wielded power with the same arrogance as its white predecessors.

"It's been a terrible disappointment," says Levy. "There's been very little communication. We knocked on the door [of city hall]. No one answered."