Three potential candidates for mayor, taking advantage of a loophole in District of Columbia election laws, have used thousands of dollars in undisclosed contributions from real estate brokers, developers, zoning lawyers and other special interests to finance polls on their prospects in next year's election.

The city's election laws require candidates for office to make public the names of any donor who contributes more than $50 to a political campaign. In addition, no individual is permitted to contribute more than $2,000 to the campaign of any candidate for mayor.

Four years ago, however, the City Council amended those laws to exempt permanently "services of an informational or polling nature" for "possible" candidates.

That loophole -- which has no parallel in federal election law -- has provided council members Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) and John Ray (D-At Large) as well as former council chairman Sterling Tucker with a way of financing the valuable polls without publicly identifying those who paid for them.

If any of the three decide later to run for mayor, the money contributed to the polling efforts will not count against any contribution limits. Moreover, unlike candidates covered by federal election law, those in the city who subsequently become candidates do not have to disclose the names of donors to the exploratory effort.

"They have a a pretty good technical argument that it is perfectly legal," said Albert J. Beveridge, chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. "But I don't think it's a good law because contributions and expenditures should be disclosed."

Polls for the three were paid for with at least $12,000 from undisclosed contributors -- primarily from a relatively small group of wealthy businessmen and special interest groups, according to interviews with members of the city's business community.

Kane's poll, which cost more than $5,000, was at least partially financed by a group of prominent developers and real estate brokers headed by Ray Howar, former president of the Washington Board of Realtors. Contributors included Foster J. Shannon, president of Shannon & Luchs realty and developer Oliver T. Carr Jr.

When announcing selective results from the poll last July, Kane said only that it was conducted by the firm of former presidential pollster Patrick Caddell and financed by a "group of individuals" who were acting on their own. Howar acknowledged recently that he played a key part in financing the poll.

"She came to me and asked me if I would like to do a poll of D.C. voters. And I helped her raise the money," Howar said. Howar praised Kane, who has opposed renewal of the city's real estate speculation tax, voted against a moratorium on condominium conversions and supported liberalizing the city's rent-control law -- all positions all favored by the real estate lobby.

"She is the one person on the council who does her homework and reads the damned legislation," Howar said in an interview.

"She came to me several months ago and asked me to help in an information-gathering effort," said Carr, who subsequently contributed between $300 and $500. "I looked at it more as a charitable gift than any indication of political support."

Tucker recently spent about $6,000 for a poll by Albert Gollin, a former Washington-based pollster now working in New York. It was financed, he said, by contributions from "maybe a dozen" members of the city's business community.

But, Tucker said in an interview last week, there is no reason why he should disclose where he got the money because a poll is not necessarily political activity. "It's just part of the sounding-out process," he said. "I'm not going to supply you with the names."

R. Robert Linowes, a politically active Washington lawyer and former president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said that he reluctantly gave Tucker "between $300 and $500" for the poll. "Sterling called me himself and asked me if I would help," Linowes said. Carr said he too contributed to the Tucker poll.

In Ray's case, the fund-raising and polling were conducted by a group of supporters that included New York lawyer Walter Pozen, former Barry fund-raiser and Ray office aide Nancy M. (Bitsy) Folger, stockbroker R.W. Corby and Greg Earls, a film distributor and coowner of the Janus and Cerebus theaters.Ray declined in an interview to answer any questions about who paid for the poll because "the statute is clear on its face. I think the polling exemption is a proper thing because you really can't cut off freedom of expression."

The three potential candidates are not the only possible contenders for mayor who have tested the waters for next year's campaign without formally declaring a candidacy.

Supporters of council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) earlier this year formed a "Draft John Wilson Committee" and raised more than $31,000 from lawyers, developers and parking executives, most of whom contributed more than $1,000 each. The committee then spent $6,100 on a poll by the firm of Hamilton and Staff.

Although Wilson has formally disowned the draft committee's efforts, he is familiar with the poll and can quote many of its findings.

Among those who contributed to the Wilson committee were two of the city's principal parking lot owners and developers -- Dominic F. Antonelli Jr. ($1,000) and Leonard B. (Bud) Doggett ($1,500). Both have considerable business holdings in downtown Washington, which is part of Wilson's ward.

City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, another prospective candidate for mayor next year, commissioned a local consulting firm to conduct a "survey" on his performance in office.

Dixon paid for the survey with $4,062 from his constituent service fund, a discretionary fund permitted under city election law that elected officials may use for community service efforts but not for campaign-related activities.

Dixon has refused to release a copy of the survey and has simply insisted that it was not related to any political activity.

"It was done to help me improve my service to my constituents," he said. "That's part of my job. It's not political."

The polling has drawn criticism from Mayor Marion Barry, who said the potential candidates are playing a "political cat-and-mouse game" that has allowed them to ignore the spirit of the law.

"What are they trying to hide?" Barry asked. "If somebody gives money to a campaign, I feel very strongly that that ought to be disclosed. The people should know who's giving to who."