John Lamar Ray, 1978 version: An unpolished, unknown, unassuming young man from Tom Creek, Ga., who quit a job as a Senate staff lawyer to run for mayor. Unsuccessful candidate of the "little people," with a campaign office in Anacostia. John Who?

John Lamar Ray, 1980 version: At-large City Council member, favored overwhelmingly to win renomination to his Council seat in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary. Chairman of the D.C. delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Host of a glittery fund-raiser at the Fairfax Hotel where, between morsels of fresh shrimp and clams on the half-shell, Washington's monied masses coughed up more than $12,000.

The transformation of John Ray from a nonentity to a legitimate political force in Washington has been remarkably swift. Perhaps the best measure of the change is the fact that no familiar face is challenging Ray this year, affording him what he calls a "free ride."

Raymond W. Powell, a 55-year-old business consultant who failed in two previous attempts to win a council seat, is Ray's only opponent in the primary. But Powell has raised barely more than $1,000 for his campaign, compared to the more than $32,000 in Ray's war chest, and there has been no other evidence that Powell has made significant inroads.

Nevertheless, Ray is running hard -- flitting to three and four forums each night, participating in radio call-in shows, shaking hands and slapping backs all over town. He acknowledges freely that he wants to seek higher office. The only questions, he says, are what to run for -- chairman of the council, mayor, nonvoting delegate to Congress -- and when.

One veteran observer of the local political scene said simply: "he's become quite a politician."

Most observers identify two events as primarily responsible for Ray's emergency: His 1978 decision to drop out of the mayor's race and throw his support to the ultimately victorious Marion Barry; and the May 6, 1980, D.C. presidential primary.

In return for Ray's support, Barry successfully lobbied the D.C. Democratic State Committee to name Ray as Barry's interim replacement on the City Council. Running in last year's special election as an incumbent -- and with key members of Barry's team raising money and chasing votes on his behalf -- Ray won.

"A lot of people thought I would just be a rubber stamp for whatever Marion sent over," Ray says. "I felt I had to establish myself. I think now people

In recent months, Ray has opposed the mayor on several issues, including the city's new 6 percent gasoline tax proposed by Barry.

Ray also opposed Barry's presidential choice. Barry, after telling friends that privately he preferred Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, finally went for President Carter. Ray announced early for Kennedy, and was chairman of his D.C. campaign.

Kennedy won the District primary handily, capturing a solid majority of the city's convention delegates, and Ray was chosen as head of the delegation. (At the convention in New York, he switched his vote to Carter after Kennedy left the race.)

Also in the May 6 primary, D.C. voters soundly defeated a proposal to legalize a city-run lottery and other forms of gambling. Ray was one of the measure's strongest opponents on the City Council, and considers May 6 a double victory.

Ray, 37, graduated from George Washington University with a degree in political science, and went on to the university's law school, graduating in 1973. Former Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas hired Ray while he was still in law school, and became "almost an adopted father," Ray says. Born out of wedlock, Ray never knew his own father. He is divorced and lives in a rented reconditioned rowhouse on 13th and E streets NE in Ward 6.

In his current race, Ray has the backing of some of Mayor Barry's best troops -- fund raiser Max Berry, Alternate National Committeeman Joseph B. Carter and strategist Anita Bonds. "He's effectively taken over a big part of Marion's organization," said one source who asked not to be named. "He's the leader of some of those people."

"When I ran last time nobody knew who the hell I was, and nobody much cared," Ray says. "Now it's easier to get a fund-raiser together, to get people to work. The context is that I'm a City Council at-large member today, but what about tomorrow?"

On the stump, Ray is not shy or tentative.

His opponent, Powell, didn't show up at an Americans for Democratic Action forum at Peace Lutheran Church in Far Northeast the other night. Still, standing in his dark blue three-piece suit before a dramatic view of lowering sky through a high arch of clear glass, Ray unloaded his standard campaign speech. His themes are the work ethic and the need for long-term solutions to the city's problems.

Ray said he feared the day will soon come when institutions like welfare are abolished, leaving many poor blacks with no money and no hope. He reminded the members of the liberal organization of the success of the tax-cutting Jarvis-Gann referendum in California.

"The referendum is a middle-class tool, it's not for poor people," Ray said. "You're going to see it used against the welfare system and the public schools. They're going to win on those issues, and before they do, we've got to get people trained and employed."

Powell said in an interview recently that he believes he can beat Ray, although he admitted that fund-raising has been slow and most people do not know who he is.

A North Carolina native, Powell maintains that the council needs businessmen as members if it is to run the city properly.

"Government is a big business, a complex business," Powell said recently in an interview at his Florida Avenue campaign headquarters, a tiny, second-floor office just big enough for a large desk, a couple of chairs and a table covered with neat stacks of campaign brochures.

"This government needs some business experience," he said. "I have run businesses." Among other ventures, Powell once ran a community newspaper in Nashville.

"The city council should be taking some of the weight off Marion Barry" on the city's budget crisis, Powell says. "They are sitting idle while the mayor is taking all the weight. If Barry's not coming out with programs that are effective, then the council should say they are not going to approve them."

Powell's focus is not on attacking Ray. He says he wanted to make another attempt after his two previous tries to win a council seat -- in 1974 against a crowded field for an at-large seat (Powell finished next to last), and in 1978 with a write-in campaign against council member Betty Ann Kane.