It's 7 a.m., and the candidate for mayor, on the stump since 6 o'clock, is breathing hard.

"Councilman John Ray," he says walking up to a Volvo, the 100th vehicle he has approached this morning as drivers wait to have their cars checked at the city's inspection station at Half and M streets SW. "Just want to say hello and let you know I'm running for mayor . . . "

"John Wilson, I know you," says Carlyle Dunaway, looking out of his car and mistaking this candidate for another council member who since has dropped out of the race for mayor. "No. You're John Ray, huh? I thought you were running for City Council."

Ray keeps going. He waves to his wife, Sarah, who is pregnant with their first child, as she leaves after passing out campaign literature. A few cars later, Ray introduces himself to another man who, with a playfully puzzled look, responds, "I thought you was Marion Barry."

Ray laughs, takes another deep breath and keeps on with his quest.

Ray launched his 1982 campaign for mayor before any other candidate. He has raised more money than any other candidate except the incumbent. He has spent more money than any other candidate. He has had more ads on radio, buses and lampposts than any other hopeful and a large paid campaign staff working full-tilt since February. He alone among the major candidates has unveiled detailed issue papers on crime, city management and small business.

But by his own admission, Ray's campaign for the Democratic nomination has yet to catch on with the voters. He remains low in the polls, his campaign contributions have slowed. His drive toward the nomination appears to be stalled. Ray is disappointed, but hopeful, philosphical, reflective.

"There's a lot of failure and disappointment in life," Ray says at breakfast after three hours of going car-to-car. "I know what the odds are right now for me in the race. The way the polls have come out -- that's life . . . Disappointment is part of life.

"I had no father. I wouldn't know him if he walked in this restaurant. I wanted to play centerfield for the New York Yankees. I was a pretty good baseball player. But I broke my arm and this white racist nurse said there wasn't nothing wrong with it . . . It healed so that I don't have the strength in it I had.

"My attitude is to go out there and campaign all day long at the inspection station," Ray says. "I don't care where I am in the polls, that's life. I'm looking at how people respond to me when I'm out here."

Ray's problem is not only lack of name recognition, but also the fact that many who do know his name don't seem to know the man behind the name.

He is not an alumnus of the neighborhood politics and civil rights activism that produced many in the current generation of city politicians, including some of the other contenders for the Democratic nomination. He does not have national name recognition that he can transfer to the local level.

His personality is not overpowering. At the auto inspection station, for instance, he moves from car to car with a handshake, a slap on the back. If asked, he'll mention his position on an issue, maybe begin by telling a lady she looks "like a good Baptist woman," and add, "I'm a good Baptist man." But there is little to make an impression on the voter's mind.

"What's his name, again?" said Bob Axelrod of Southwest Washington, after talking with Ray at the inspection station. "He seems like an okay guy," Axelrod said. "He's on the council? Looks like a nice fellow."

Ray's record during three years on the council lacks any dazzling proposal or action that has kept his name in the papers or made him a stand-out council member or even separated him from several other council members running for mayor.

He cosponsored legislation prohibiting landlords from converting apartments to condominiums without tenants' approval. He held hearings three years ago on the state of education in the public schools. He has championed mandatory sentences for drug peddlers and those who use handguns in the commission of crimes.

"John Ray hasn't done anything notable to distinguish himself from other candidates," said Paul Maslin, a vice president at Cambridge Survey Research Inc., political consultants who are working for one of Ray's opponents, council member Betty Ann Kane.

"No one is sure what his base is . . . " Maslin said. "He's done a lot of media, but not direct hits on the issues people are interested in. He hasn't said why he should replace Barry. That jingle he had on the radio just doesn't have any staying power."

Maislin says Ray's person-to-person campaign approach is a failing strategy unless accompanied by a good advertising campaign. Right now, Ray lacks the money to mount such a campaign -- in large part because he lacks the name identification to show well in the polls.

He had one earlier, spending $55,000 on a series of radio spots in January and February, followed by bus ads. Yet, afterward, his standing remained low in the polls, campaign contributions did not pick up measurably and Ray nearly depleted his campaign treasury long before the toughest part of the contest began.

Ray and his strategists acknowledge the problem of building name recognition and candidate identification. "People who meet me," said Ray, "and get to know me and my record like me and by in large say they will vote for me. My problems is how to get across who John Ray is and what he stands for."

"Everything we've done so far has been designed to boost John's name recognition, said Dan Pero, Ray's main political consultant at Bailey/Deardourff & Associates.

"Getting votes is a two-step process." Pero said. "The voters have to know who you are and then they have to decide if they like you. More people know John, now but they haven't focused on who he is yet."

In the early polls, Ray drew only 5 percent of the vote, putting him at about the same level as Kane, Wilson and Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) but far behind the two leading candidates, incumbent Marion Barry (28 percent) and former Carter administration Cabinet member Patricia Roberts Harris (39 percent).

"I can't believe those polls," Ray said. "When I talk to people I meet campaigning that's not the reaction I get. People are looking for alternatives to Marion, a lot of them are undecided and they like me; they tell me they like me."

In April, Ray launched a telephone campaign to boost name recognition. Ray says that based on the responses to the telephone calls, he thinks he has about 23 percent of the vote and that most people are undecided. Ray also says he has commissioned another poll, to be done soon by pollster Richard Sykes.

Raising money also has become a problem for Ray. He collected most of his $226,557 before Jan. 31, and spent most of it, $171,811, before March 10 on advertising and consulting, including a $5,530 consulting fee to business executive Joseph B. Carter, a former Barry supporter who is cochairman of the Ray campaign.

After January, Ray raised only $22,000 in the next six weeks and claims he will have raised about $75,000 by June 10, the next date for reporting financial contributions. A recent birthday party that Ray had expected to net much of the money for the current stage of the campaign raised only $10,000.

"It's going slow now," said Nancy M. (Bitsy) Folger, Ray's chief fund-raiser. "I think its going slow for everybody but the polls didn't help us. We didn't do as well as we might have liked with the birthday party, but we've got other things planned."

For all the difficulty Ray is having in the campaign not every political observer thinks he cannot win Sept. 14.

"You can't count him out," said council member Wilson, who dropped out of the race for mayor in April. "I was running into a lot of people who were thinking I was John Ray. And he's got a good organization over there. Those people are working for him . . . .You get some of these front runners slowing up, and John could break through."