David A. Clarke yesterday kicked off his campaign for chairman of the D.C. City Council, charging that under Chairman Arrington Dixon the council "has lost its sense of the struggle" to represent lower- and middle-income Washington residents.

Clarke, a Democrat who represents Ward 1 on the council, said Dixon, a Democrat who was elected chairman in 1978, "is more Republican than the only Republican" on the 13-member council.

He contended that Dixon has failed to take a leadership role in cushioning the economic effects of the Reagan administration's budget cuts and on local issues such as housing, displacement of tenants, crime and city services.

Clarke said Dixon either opposed or failed to take clear stands during the council debates over Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the city's antispeculation tax and Clarke's effort to put more funds in the city's Medicaid budget.

"I am ready, willing and able to lead the council in that struggle," Clarke said. "I seek the Democratic nomination and I seek it proudly."

Clarke spoke to about 60 supporters who gathered in the Shaw neighborhood in front of the boarded-up Anthony Bowen YMCA at 1816 12th St. NW, which has been the focus of a controversy since YMCA officials voted earlier this year to close it.

The issue has not been settled and Clarke contends Dixon has not worked to reopen the facility.

Clarke, 38, who is white, praised the ethnic and racial diversity of the central-city ward that he has represented since 1975. But he did not directly mention his earlier decision--since reversed--not to run for council chairman because of racial issues.

After exploring the chairman's race for nearly a year, and getting strong, but private, encouragement from Mayor Marion Barry, Clarke had announced that he would not run against Dixon in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, but instead would give up his Ward 1 seat and seek the at-large seat being vacated by mayoral candidate Betty Ann Kane, a Democrat.

Clarke said at the time that a private poll he commissioned showed many black voters were reluctant to vote for a white person for council chairman. Clarke blamed the Reagan administration for adding to racial divisiveness because of its economic policies.

Clarke, who has one of the most liberal voting records on the council, also said he was reluctant to challenge a black incumbent.

But within two weeks Clarke had changed his mind, and said he was wrong to bow to racial prejudices. When council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), who is black, dropped out of the mayor's race and then said he would not run for chairman, Clarke was left as the only candidate so far to challenge Dixon.

Yesterday, he released a list of 430 "Friends of Dave Clarke," including tenant activists, attorneys, gay rights advocates, small business owners, community organizers, Gray Panthers and former city officials.

Some of the names on the list were Joseph Rauh, the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley, D.C. Gazette publisher Sam Smith, former city transportation director Douglas Schneider Jr., former school board candidate Manuel Lopez and Stephanie Greene, a member of the city's judicial tenure and disability commission.

Others included 76 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners and several delegates to the city's Statehood Constitutional Convention. Clarke also is a delegate to the convention.

Clarke acknowledged that his campaign--which he says may cost about $200,000--will trail Dixon in fund-raising. Dixon, who has announced for reelection but has not kicked off his campaign formally, has said he will be able to raise a $350,000 campaign chest.

"What my opponent may hire staff to do, we will have to do by volunteers," Clarke said. "While he can buy media, we will have to use community networks. When his average contribution is over $500, we must collect ten $50 contributions to meet his one."