The photographs fill her office walls: Polly Shackleton with Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, with Metro officials and little children in Anacostia, City Council members and D.C. mayors--nearly 40 years of Democratic Party and social history.

The pictures capture a lifetime in political Washington, and they are the showcase of her assets on the City Council: long service and a network of powerful friends. But Shackleton, campaigning at age 72 for a third elected term as the representative of Ward 3, is running scared for the first time, battling two hard-charging opponents who say she has lost enthusiasm for her job.

"The ward needs a leader who will be active and energetic, someone who will reach out to the community, someone who is accessible," says challenger Ruth Dixon, 60, a former president of the League of Women Voters, addressing a crowd recently at the Guy Mason Recreation Center on Calvert Street NW.

"Ask yourself how well this job has been done over the past four years," Dixon says at many campaign stops.

"People aren't real upset with Polly," says Mark Plotkin, a 35-year-old political consultant who is opposing Shackleton in his first bid for elected public office. "They just want a different kind of leadership, someone who takes initiative. People truly do not feel obligated to vote for her a third time." But he adds, "I'd be kidding myself if I didn't say Polly was starting with a tremendous advantage."

Shackleton, who received 77 percent of the vote in 1978 against token opposition, has been campaigning at Metro stops, neighborhood festivals and supermarkets. She responds to criticism of her leadership by reminding audiences that she often sponsors or cosponsors legislation, and that she plays an important mediating role on the council.

She also says that her background as an advocate for civil rights here "helps bridge the racial gap of mistrust" that she said can arise between predominantly white Ward 3 and the rest of the city.

"We are in for difficult times with Reaganomics, the job cutbacks and all," Shackleton tells her audiences. "I have the experience and the strength to deal with it."

"Mark Plotkin says that he's lived here for 17 years. What has he done for the city? Where's he been? " Shackleton asked recently during an interview. "Dixon? Her position papers sound like a teacher for a sixth-grade school. She has no substance."

Whichever of the three candidates wins the Democratic Party primary will face Republican newcomer Lois DeVecchio in September's general election in a race to represent the most affluent ward in the city -- a collection of mostly middle- and upper-income white neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park.

Ward 3 used to include much of Georgetown, until redistricting this year shifted that area to center-city Ward 2.

Shackleton could benefit from a three-way split of the vote, according to some political observers, who calculate that the primary could be won with just over 4,000 votes if this year's turnout is average.

Normally, about 12,000 of the approximately 28,000 registered Democrats in Ward 3 vote in the primaries.

The political impact of the ward's loss of Georgetown is not clear. It is Shackleton's neighborhood; she lives on Reservoir Road in the tiny sliver of Georgetown that remains in Ward 3. The returns from the 1978 primary gave her about 78 percent of the ballots cast in Georgetown. But she has been strongly criticized by some Georgetown groups in endless battles over waterfront development, zoning and liquor licenses, and observers felt that she had lost some of her support there.

Plotkin and Dixon have aimed their campaigns mostly at precincts 351 and 352, the large, mainly residential areas of Chevy Chase and Forest Hills, east of Connecticut Avenue, where Shackletonreceived 77 percent and 78 percent of the primary vote in 1978. Both challengers contend that Shackleton has lost support in those neighborhoods, chiefly over school issues.

Plotkin--who has taught at Moten Elementary in far Southeast and River Terrace in Northeast -- and Dixon say they believe that Shackleton failed to pay sufficient attention to education issues until this year, when Parents United for Full Funding, a group of activist public school parents, began pressing her.

Shackleton counters that until this year the board was dominated by "a bunch of jerks" who would not work with anybody.

Political observers say that the group of parents who helped elect School Board member Wanda Washburn last year has split among the candidates, with most of the support going to Dixon and Shackleton.

Shackleton serves as chairman of the City Council's Human Services Committee, which oversees more than a third of the city's $1.8 billion budget. Dixon and Plotkin charge that in this position Shackleton has supported, but failed to take the lead on, several important issues, including the fight against crime, displacement of renters by condominium conversion, and improved health and emergency services for the elderly.

"She doesn't know how much leverage she'd have if she'd speak out," says Plotkin. He accuses Shackleton of taking "an oath of silence" on some issues because of her support for Barry, a political ally. Ward 3 is the area of the city in which Barry's support for reelection seems to have slipped more than anywhere else.

Dixon criticizes Shackleton for voting for a revision of the city's estate tax laws, only to have the council rescind the measure after complaints that the law penalized persons with estates in excess of $250,000. Shackleton said the bill included several needed reforms, but that she moved to reconsider it after its flaws were discovered.

Plotkin contends that Shackleton has not done enough to oppose a proposed C&P Telephone Co. rate change that would allow the company to charge for local calls according their length and time of day they are made, as it now does for long-distance calls.

While Shackleton and Plotkin have both testified before the city's Public Service Commission against the proposed rate change, Plotkin also has compaigned to have the three members of the PSC elected, rather than appointed by the mayor, in order to make them more responsive to consumers.

Plotkin has assailed the city's ambulance service, calling it a "scandal" and saying that ambulances are poorly staffed and equipped, and take too long to respond to emergencies. Shackleton reports that she has spoken out about the problem, but that it does not come under her committee's jurisdiction.

Both Dixon and Plotkin cite past budget cuts in the city's recreation department and libraries, areas that fall within the purview of Shackleton's committee. Recreation funds have been cut 42 percent in the past several years, while library budgets have barely kept pace with inflation, resulting in staff reductions and reduced hours.

Shackleton agrees that the two agencies "were hard hit by the city's budget crisis," but contends that they are improving. "They are not as bad off as some cities, like New York," she says.

Shackleton says she has recovered from cancer surgery nearly three years ago, and adds in an interview that "I am in excellent health. I'm sick and tired of the whispering campaign about my health."

This issue has not come up at public forums, but political observers say that questions about Shackleton's health have been an undercurrent in the campaign, offset to some extent by the fact that she has been maintaining a busy schedule.

Shackleton gets high marks from Dixon for her constituent service. "It's excellent," Dixon acknowledged, but she suggested that Shackleton should encourage more residents to bring problems with city services to her council staff.

While Shackleton has raised $25,408, according to campaign finance reports filed June 10, Dixon and Plotkin have raised $15,226 and $12,815, respectively.

Much of Shackleton's money has come from a list of longtime personal friends and Democratic supporters, including attorney Joseph Rauh and businessman John W. Hechinger Jr.

Dixon's report shows a variety of contributions from throughout Ward 3, with with about a third of her funds from loans in amounts of $5,000 to herself and $507 from her husband.

In addition to local contributions, Plotkin's report disclosed donations from political friends from around the country, including Texas, Illinois, New York and Oklahoma, whom he had met while working in various political campaigns, including Sen. Edward Kennedy's presidential campaign.

Dixon has received the endorsement of the Food and Allied Service Trade Council, an alliance of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 99.

Shackleton is expected to be endorsed by the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL- CIO.

Plotkin has been endorsed by Sam Smith, publisher of the D.C. Gazette, a biweekly tabloid of local and national politics.