Politically, they were two peas in a pod -- Marion Barry, the former cotton chopper from Itta Bena, Miss., and John Ray, the one-time turpentiner from Tom Creek, Ga. -- two men with relatively liberal credentials, similar political bases, strikingly parallel family roots and shared political ambitions who seemed unlikely to get in each other's way.

True, for a short time they were adversaries in Washington politics. Both campaigned for the Democratic nomination for mayor in 1978. But Ray dropped out in the final days of the race and threw his support, including that of some formely anti-Barry ministers, to Barry, and that is when the close political friendship began.

The newly elected Mayor Barry blessed Ray as his successor on the City Council and directed some of his to fund-raisers and campaign organizers to help elect the "John Who" of only a few months earlier. By mid-1979, Ray was emerging as a force to be reckoned with a -- new face on the political horizon and someone easily quotable as "a source close to the mayor" on the City Council.

No more days like those.

Ray is once again challenging Barry for the Democratic nomination for mayor. Borrowing a page from Barry's 1978 underdog book, Ray has become the first candidate to launch a campaign unofficially by establishing an exploratory committee. The committee is headed by Joseph B. Carter, who was chairman of Barry's campaign strategy committee in 1978.

Barry seems to be reacting with mixed emotions.He was quick to acknowledge in an interview last week that in his opinion, Ray had accepted his support in 1979 on an unspoken, but clearly emphasized, understanding that Ray not challenge Barry for mayor next year.

"John understood that," Barry said. "Some things you don't have to say," Barry added. "He knew I was going to run in 1982. He knew it. It was clear."

Barry was asked if he feels betrayed.

No, that's not the feeling, he responded, only "love in my heart." And he smiled.

With more than 11 months remaining until the 1982 primary, it is difficult to gauge the depth of the split in the Barry-Ray ranks. The mayor insists that only a few of his followers -- primarily Carter and fund-raiser Nancy M. "Bitsy" Folger -- have joined Ray. Ray says the number of defections is higher.

But Ray's account of the misunderstood understanding is further testimony to the fact that, at least on a rhetorical level, two old friends are at each other's political throats.

Ray said he never asked Barry for anything, including the endorsement for city council. "Frankly speaking," he said last week, "my view was that once Marion was elected mayor, he would be mayor for 15 or 20 years. I didn't know what else Marion would want to do where he could make as much money as he could [as mayor]. . . . All of my ambitions were gone. . . . I had no intention of every seeing myself as mayor after Marion Barry was elected."

Ray said some of Barry's campaign workers insisted that he be drafted to run as Barry's replacement on the council, so he gave up his intention to go into private law practice. "Marion never asked me about his support on the basis that I not run [against him]. The question never came up, and I never would have agreed to it," Ray said.

ASked what convinced him to change his mind and resurrect his mayoral ambitions, Ray responded, "The last three years of Marion Barry.The record speaks for itself."

None of that fazes the mayor. He thinks John Ray has a lot to lose, he said, by challenging him this time around. "He stands to lose his political future," Barry said. "He's in a losing situation. John is no threat."

The intensity of the mayor's rhetoric suggests that his one-time protege of sorts is somewhat more of a political threat than a stalking horse. But it's still early in the campaign, and no one understands that better these days than Marion Barry.

Last week's column on mayoral candidates outlined a campaign strategy for City Council Member Betty Ann Kane as proposed by an unnamed official of a respected polling firm in the city. That pollster was not Kane's pollster, and the strategy outlined was not hers.