Five Democratic opponents in the D. C. mayor's race met last night at a candidates' forum that produced some of the sharpest exchanges of the campaign thus far.

Patricia Roberts Harris, the former Carter administration cabinet officer, drew gasps from the audience of about 300 at the Martin Luther King Library with her searing assessment of Mayor Marion Barry's efforts to reduce infant mortality in the District.

"There are hundreds of dead babies that know the incumbent has not kept his promises," said Harris. "Do you think the babies who died believe the promises were kept?"

Barry, visibly angered by Harris' remarks, was unable to respond directly to the charge but said later that most of the candidates seem to have only one program to offer: "Attack Barry."

The audience was quick to join in the contentious spirit of the affair and alternately hissed and booed or clapped and cheered as the mayoral rivals spoke. Leaders of the forum, sponsored by the Coalition of One Hundred Black Women of D.C, spent much of last night trying to keep partisans in the audience from making speeches before asking questions of the candidates.

City Council member John Ray (D-At Large), continued his emphasis on crime in the city as a major campaign issue, reiterating his proposals for mandatory sentencing and inmate rehabilitation programs.

He chided Harris, who has been criticized by some for not showing enough interest in the District until she decided to run for mayor. "We don't need to elect a mayor who'll take three weeks to find Lorton," said Ray, referring to the city's prison complex in Fairfax County.

And, after Barry pointed to his administration's record of hiring women--increasing their number on the city's numerous boards and commissions from 20 percent to 48 percent--council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) countered with humor: "It's obvious that many of the fine women the mayor has appointed to the boards and commissions are in this room," Jarvis said to members of the audience who consistently cheered Barry. "Your jobs are safe with me."

Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) stressed her record on the council and as a former member of the school board. She said women hold fewer than 30 percent of District government jobs that pay more than $35,000 annually and that she would concentrate on hiring city residents and minorities if she were elected.

Republican candidates E. Brook Lee and James Champagne did not take part in the forum. Democratic candidates, Morris Harper, a physician, and publisher Denis Sobin were not invited to participate.