When the race for Democratic nominee for mayor began this year the possible contenders for the mayor's job included four City Council members, a former City Council chairman and the current City Council chairman, and a former federal cabinet secretary.

The thinking then among city politicans was that incumbent Mayor Marion Barry was about to lose his seat. There were nonstop problems for the city government during his first three years of office, fights with the council and the school board, rifs (reductions in force) of city workers, and the threat of scandal around the mayor. As polls showed Barry in an unpopular light, politicans were lining up to replace him.

But as the primary enters its final month, two of the council members who sought to replace him have dropped out of the race, two others are teetering in the race with little money and less than 5 percent support in the polls, the current and former council chairmen are fighting to be the next council chairman and the former cabinet secretary, Patricia Harris, is still in the race, but trailing the incumbent.

Now the political perception of the moment is that Barry is an odds-on favorite to win reelection. What happened?

"Barry has become the alternative to himself," said John Ray, an at-large City Council member who is campaigning to unseat Barry. "It started with the money people early in the campaign. They thought Marion would win because there were so many people in the race and 20 or 23 percent of the vote could have made him a winner. They don't like him but it's business for them. Barry's pressuring people who want jobs, contracts or permits from the city."

Barry denies offering jobs and contracts in exchange for campaign contributions or votes.

The money Barry has received from businessmen -- about $800,000 -- has helped him to build an intimidating war chest for the campaign while his challengers scrape to raise money, some of them unsuccessfully.

Early on, Barry may have benefitted from the attention focused on Harris, a former cabinet secretary and a national black figure, entering local politics. Many questions were raised at the time: Was she desperate for a job? Was she trying to stay in the limelight? Did she care about the city? There were also questions about her leadership style. Was she too tough?

The earlier pressure on Harris took some of the pressure off Barry, some observers say.

"I can't understand why anyone would ask if I cared," Harris said. "People must not realize it would be easier for me not to run than to run and risk losing. You would think that would make it obvious that I care for this city deeply."

The questions about Harris also led to questions about her criticisms of Barry. Why did she, a player on the national scene, need to scrap with Barry, a local politican?

"It put a candidate in an awkward postion," said Sharon Dixon, Harris' campaign director. "If you present his failures you are accused of carping. If you present what you can do, they say, 'Well, prove it, he's been there, not you.' "

The polls that showed Barry as a vulnerable candidate earlier this year have changed. Barry was the leading candidate in a recent Washington Post poll with a 13 percent margin over Harris. And Barry's political organization hit stride, as well, winning endorsements from most of the city's political leadership in addition to continuing to pile on the businessmen's dollars.

"He's bought out the leadership that wants to figure out which side is winning early," said R. Calvin Lockridge, a school board member who is an aide to Harris. "The best example is how he bought off some of the ministers with day-care centers . . . but it's a false impresssion to think he is gaining momentum with the voters. They'll speak on election day."

Lockridge is not alone in doubting the early poll results. Both Ray and Charlene Drew Jarvis, the Ward 4 council member who is running for mayor, say they don't see a groundswell of support for Barry.

But as Jarvis and Ray are hoping that voters will be looking for an alternative to Barry on Sept. 14th, primary election day, the polls show Barry with about 45 percent of the vote. Nonetheless, Peter Hart, a nationally known pollster, and John Marttila, a political consultant, both of whom are working with Harris, said Barry's 45 percent showing in the poll is not intimidating.

They say that a majority, 55 percent of the voters, still don't seem to want Barry reelected.

"Barry has used the power of his incumbency to win key endorsements, to create the perception that his situation is improving," said Marttila. "Perception is something you deal with in politics. You always hear that your candidate is winning or losing. You don't care about perception as long as reality is with you. The reality is that there is still great disaffection with Barry."

But so far, Harris' and Barry's other challengers have been unable to translate the dissatisfaction they believe voters have for Barry to their benefit.

"She (Harris) has not established that she knows what the city is about," said Paul Lutzker, a political consultant to Barry. "She hasn't said what she can do for the city. It's been criticism and asking the voters to support her because two presidents selected her to work for them. . . . It's an unattractive argument to tell local people this is a small pond and I've played in a bigger pond so elect me."

"Harris," said John Ray, "has failed to provide a compelling reason why voters should go with her over Barry."

That's why Ray says that, at least for some of the voters, Barry has become the "alternative to himself."