At a recent forum for the Democratic candidates for the Ward 7 seat on the D.C. City Council, the first question came from an obvious partisan in the crowd.

"This is to H. R. Crawford," the young man said in a belligerent, accusing tone. "Can you tell us why you were fired from HUD [the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development] and about the missing money?"

The next question was directed to Crawford's major challenger, Johnny Barnes, who has been fighting a charge of being a "carpetbagger" brought into the ward to run for the council seat. "Were you planted here in Ward 7?" the questioner asked, to the approving hoots of the Crawford supporters jammed into the basement of the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Southest Washington.

Crawford told the audience, "There was nothing -- nothing -- that I ever did at the Department of Housing and Urban Development that I wouldn't do again." And Barnes, responding to his questioner, said hotly, "If you want to know every place I've lived all my life, go ask the IRS" (Internal Revenue Service).

The scene at the raucous forum has been plated out in church basements and meeting halls across Ward 7, in a contest that is easily the toughest and most heated of any on the Sept. 9 primary election ballots. The fight among Barnes, 32, Crawford, 41, and school board employe Emily Y. Washington, 36, is leaving deep divisions in the community as the only campaign certain to send a new member to the council grows more intense and personal.

Barnes and Crawford are considered the front-runners to replace incumbent council member Willie J. Hardy, who is retiring. Barnes and Crawford have raised the most money, spent the most and attracted the largest origanization and the most endorsements. But the outcome of the race is still so uncertain that many businesses are trying to stay neutral.

Some smaller merchants in the southeastern end of the ward are displaying both Crawford and Barnes posters in their windows. One Ward 7 entrepreneur, apparently still seeing the race as wide open, has displayed posters of all three Democrats, and even one sign for John West, the 47-year-old Republican running unopposed in the GOP primary.

The contest has been characterized by fierce in-fighting between the Barnes and Crawford campaign organizations, ranging from stacking forums with supporters to ripping down the posters and lawn signs of opponents. The on-going poster war between Crawford and Barnes has made the race colorful and highly visible, as well as increasingly bitter.

The battle lines have also become more precise, with each of the city's various interest groups finally choosing sides, and the candidates touting their endorsements as fast as they come in.

Crawford is trying to build a coalition among labor unions, the city's most prominent ministers, the Ward 7 political leadership, and some officials from the administration of former mayor Walter E. Washington. Crawford has been endorsed by and has received hefty campaign contributions from the D.C. real estate group, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and the Greater Washington Central Labor Council, which has been mailing out fliers to union members in the ward and printing brown-and-white posters calling Crawford "The Worker's Candidate."

Barnes is trying to build his own coalition, composed of the ward's younger voters, the tenants who remember Barnes as an attorney representing various tenants' groups, the city's elected leadership and the Washington business establishment.

Crawford has also been endorsed by the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city's mayor gay rights political organization, as well as the Americans for Democratic Action in a controversial meeting stacked with Crawford supporters.

Barnes has received $400, the maximum allowable, from the Greater Washington Board of Trade and from the D.C. Bankers Association. He has also been endorsed by City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, five incumbent council members, and by D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, Barnes' employer on Capitol Hill. He has also received support from the Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing, a protestant group.

Most recently, Barnes, who has had some trouble lining up union support, was endorsed by the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees.

Emily Washington, who has received no major endorsements, said she is not seeking any. In forums, her standard pitch is that "Any candidate who is pledged to a special interest group by accepting their endorsement cannot serve the people 100 percent."

Ward 7 covers a large chunk of far Northeast and Southeast Washington, east of the Anacostia River. It is roughly bisected physically, and economically, by Fort Dupont Park.

The ward's poorer regions, its public housing projects and run-down neighborhoods lie north of the park. This area was long considered the political stronghold of the tough-talking Hardy, who has represented the ward on the elected council since its inception in 1975.

South of the park lie settled middleclass neighborhoods and growing pockets of affluence that are increasingly inhabited by young black professionals. All three council candidates live south of the park. Mayor Marion Barry lives in the ward, and would like to establish a political base there. Thus far -- officially, at least -- Barry has not taken sides in the council contest.

Hazle ("it rhymes with dazzle," he says) Reid Crawford is a real estate man and property manager best known in Ward 7 as a blunt, sometimes gun-toting landlord who carefully screened apartment applicants and did not hesitate to kick tenants out if he found them unsatisfactory.

Crawford was fired in January 1976 for seeking consulting contracts with housing authorities that received money from HUD. The Justcie Department later closed its investigation, saying "no further action is contemplated" in the case.

Crawford lives on Westover Drive, where some homes are worth upwards of $100,000, and is reputed to be a wealthy man. However, he refuses to disclose his net worth, saying that "it's no crime to make money."

On the stump, Barnes, legislative aide to Fauntroy, stresses his authorship of the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment, which would give the District two voting senators and at least one representative in the House, but which is now stalled, having been passed by only 9 of the required 38 state legislatures.

Barnes, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind., says he has "lived all my adult life in Southeast Washington." But prior to the 1978 council election, Barnes bought a house in Northeast and told friends he wanted to run for the council from Ward 5. Barnes changed his mind and moved to his current house at 3104 V Place SE in Ward 7, but the move has opened Barnes to the allegation that he is a "carpetbagger."

Barnes is also dogged by the fact that he was endorsed by both Hardy and Fauntroy, fueling the charges of his political opponents that he was planted in the ward as part of a prearranged deal, and has no real support among Ward 7 residents.

But the "carpetbaggers" charges against Barnes -- just like the accusations about Crawford's departure from HUD -- seem mostly confined to the two campaign staffs, and have not yet surfaced as major issues among likely voters.

Crawford and Barnes have tried to remain aloof from the personal attacks, leaving the gloves-off questioning to supporters and surrogates in the audiences.

Washington, however, always manages to get in sharp verbal jabs at both her apponents. At one forum, for example, Washington said, "A vote for Emily Y. Washington is a vote for honesty, sincerity, and integrity (and) a vote against sinister, organized political efforts. A vote for me is a vote against narrow, selfish business interests."

While the candidates and their supporters have traded verbal barbs on a variety of issues, housing, creation of more jobs and better delivery of services have emerged as the key concerns in a ward that traditionally has felt slightly by the city government.

While they agree on solutions to most city problems, such as the need to entice more businesses and improve bus transportion in the ward -- they are divided over rent control.

Crawford at one forum said, "I have some very strong problems with rent control. This town is becoming the Manhattan of the South."

Barnes responded, "I support rent control. I've been promoting, beyond rent control, this concept of ownership." Barnes said he supports incentives for tenants to buy their apartment buildings, and low-interest mortgages for potential home buyers.

Washington said she supports rent control "on the premise that everybody is entitled to a decent and a safe place to live."