During the mid-1970s, Frank Smith and Marie S. Nahikian worked side by side in the Adams Morgan Organization, leading the fight against displacement of tenants from the once solidly working class neighborhood around Columbia Road NW.

Now Smith, a member of the D.C. school board, and Nahikian, a former city housing department employe, are on opposite sides in a different battle: they are among six Democrats and three Republicans vying for the Ward 1 City Council seat being vacated by David A. Clarke, who is running for Council chairman.

The race has attracted a relatively large field of candidates, but most political observers consider Smith, 39, and Nahikian, 35, the front-runners. Both have run for office before and won significant portions of the vote.

In addition, campaign finance records indicate that each has raised considerably more money than any of the other Democratic candidates--computer programmer Ester L. McCain Jr., 45; lawyer Glenn Logan Reitze; financial analyst Reuben M. Lewis, 38, and Calvin O. Wingfield, 56, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employe.

"The race is between me and Marie, there's no two ways about it," said Smith. "I think she's a good person. I just think I'm better. I'm more experienced. I'm better educated and I'm a church man and a family man."

Nahikian said, "I have a long very personal relationship with Frank. I was initially very pleased to see Frank's involvement with the Adams Morgan Organization (AMO) and housing issues . Now I think he's changed. It's become very clear that Frank's major goal was moving himself forward instead of the community."

The two first met in 1975 when both were employed at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank. That same year they began working together on the executive council of AMO--a community group Nahikian started in 1971 to organize tenants to stem real estate speculation and displacement in Adams Morgan.

Their once-close partnership has dissolved at a time when the ward itself has changed, sharpening the political focus on a community that over the years has been in a tug-of-war with speculators, historic preservationists, Hispanic leaders and city planners.

Yet change is only one of the things on the minds of ward residents.

"When I first came here, people said you musn't live here on the east side of the city but it was such a lovely area," said Elsie Anderson, a retired Pentagon employe who describes herself as apolitical and who has lived in the area for more than 30 years.

"More people have moved in the area now," she said. "It would be nice, though, if I could still walk down the street to the Safeway that used to be at 16th and U streets."

Recently, the ward has become a fashionable neighborhood for young professionals. Even the riot-scarred 14th Street area has attracted several new businesses, including The Canal Company, a branch of a Georgetown antique shop.

The ward stretches east from Conneticut Avenue to First Street, north from S Street to Spring Road and includes Howard University, the riot-torn and crime-ridden 14th street corridor and affluent residents along Conneticut Avenue. In addition to Adams Morgan, neighborhoods in the ward include Mount Pleasant, Cardozo, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park and parts of Shaw.

"Ward 1 is an area where a politician has to be all things to all people," said Jerry Cooper, former chairman of the Ward 1 Democratic Committee. "Every politician in Ward 1 addresses themselves to the diversity."

In addition to the six Democrats vying for the party's nomination, three Republicans are also seeking the seat representing the ward where 90 percent of the 27,000 registered voters are Democrats: Nancy Shia, 35, a free-lance photographer; Charles B. Fisher, a consultant and former chairman of the elections board, and Jacob Sherrill Jr., an accountant.

Many of the six Democratic candidates have similar stands, in a contest where housing displacement, crime and development are frequently discussed issues.

Smith, a member of the school board since 1979, and Nahikian, a one-time editor for Harpers magazine, both oppose mandatory sentencing and support the D.C. Statehood constitution, increased funding for the public schools and tax incentives for small businessmen.

As a result, political observers say, the different style and personality of the two front-runners may play an important part in the election.

Smith tried to unseat Clarke in 1978, but received only 13 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. That same year, Nahikian sought the party's nomination for an at-large seat, and placed fourth in a field of 11.

"Neither one of them has done anything," observes McCain, who said a shoot-out in front of his W Street home prompted him to enter the race to urge the city to be tougher on crime.

Reitze, a lawyer who says he thinks the Statehood constitution "is a mistake," says he does not feel that Smith and Nahikian are front-runners.

"I have a great deal more experience dealing with laws and their consequences than anyone else running for office," said Reitze.

Lewis, whose campaign slogan is, "In unity we build our community and grow," believes improving community services is the key issue in the campaign.

Republicans Sherrill and Fisher could not be reached for comment.

Shia, an Antioch Law School graduate who describes herself as "a progressive Republican," said she is running to improve housing and day care in the ward. She said she does not have a campaign manager and has not spent any money so far.

Clarke, who has represented the ward on the council since 1975, has declined to endorse any candidate in the race, but does have words of advice for any would-be winner. "You have to seek the highest common denominator," said Clarke. "The key to winning the election is to stretch your power base across the ward."