It began as a rather bland gathering of D.C. Democrats Monday evening in the Cleveland Park parlor of fund-raiser Nancy (Bitsy) Folger.

The event was billed as a thank-you party for the supporters of Mary Ann Keeffe, the loser in the Ward 3 school board race last September.

But the evening suddenly turned icy when D.C. Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3) collared Donald Shannon, the president of the Citizens' Association of Georgetown and one of her severest critics, and accused him and his membership of being "stupid or venal" for the strategy they pursued in opposing a redistricting plan that will boot them out of Ward 3 and place them in Ward 2.

While council member John Ray, former police chief Burtell M. Jefferson and others looked on in horror, Shannon lashed back at Shackleton.

He blamed her for not working hard enough to defeat the redistricting plan and accused her of taking a powder while his group sought to block commercial development along Georgetown's waterfront.

"Pusillanimous" was the word Shannon used in his extraordinary condemnation of the woman who once was considered the "Grand Dame" of Democratic politics in Ward 3.

"She doesn't have the interest any more -- she just can't hack it," said Shannon, a member of the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times. "I don't know why she hangs around. She ought to cut her losses and get out."

Asked about her run-in with Shannon, Shackleton demurred.

"I don't want to say anything to give him any credibility," she said. "I was just sick and tired of his badmouthing me . . . even to my staff."

The incident provided ample grist for the District Building gossip mill. It also underscored the painful political problems and tough personal decisions that confront the 71-year-old Shackleton, whose term expires next year.

Although there is little doubt she still commands substantial loyalty from Democrats, Republicans and independents in her ward, Shackleton is under some pressure to step down gracefully, both from friends who wish her well and from rivals who covet her seat.

Those frequently mentioned as possible contenders for Shackleton's seat include Kay McGrath, an analyst in the D.C. Department of Planning and Development and former campaign stalwart for Mayor Marion Barry; Ruth Dixon, former president of the D.C. League of Women Voters; Joel Garner, a researcher for the Department of Justice and former chairman of the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Committee who ran unsuccessfully as an independent for an at-large seat on the City Council last year; and Carol Schwartz, a Republican who didn't seek reelection this year to her seat on the school board.

Shackleton claims that more than half the Ward 3 voters interviewed recently as part of her political soundings say they still support her. She also cites encouragement she's received from "a number of individuals and groups" to seek election to a third term (Shackleton also served on the city's first appointed council, from 1967 to 1974).

But Shackleton also will confront new political uncertainties as the face of her ward is dramatically reshaped by the controversial redistricting plan approved by the council on Tuesday.

Under that plan, Georgetown, one of the most politically active neighborhoods in the city and long a bastion of Shackleton's supporters, will be shifted to the central city Ward 2.

Shackleton concedes her age might be a negative factor in a bid for reelection, although she claims that nearly three-fourths of the respondents to her recent soundings denied that was a concern.

Moreover, Keeffe's loss in the school board race, despite receiving Shackleton's support, suggested that Shackleton's own popularity was not sufficent to result in the automatic election of a candidate she blessed.

But apart from political considerations, Shackleton is also weighing the impact of another term in office on her private life.

As one of the wealthiest members of the council, salary is of no consequence.

Although she has dedicated much of her life to political activism and social concerns, she now feels a responsibility to spend more time with her husband Robert.

"This job takes up a lot of time, and I have a conscience about this," she said.

Also, Shackleton must consider the wear and tear on her health of another campaign and four years in a high-pressured job. Two years ago, she underwent successful surgery and treatment for cancer.

Although the current betting among District Building observers is that she won't seek a third term, Shackleton says she won't make up her mind until next February or March.

"I simply have not yet decided," she said this week.