When Mayor Marion Barry reported last week that he had raised more than $900,000 for his primary reelection campaign, eyebrows went up and questions were raised in the city's political circles.

The reason for the attention is that no one is sure how Barry could have raised that much money or what he might have promised to attract the money. Four years ago, in the city's second mayoral election, all three candidates raised less for the entire primary than Barry has raised by himself in this race with four weeks to go.

"Access is always a factor when people make a campaign contribution," said Thomas J. Owen, chairman of the board of Perpetual American Federal Savings and Loan Association. "You don't always get the response you want, but at least you have your views heard."

"With this much money involved though, you have to think that some deals are being made, but I don't know what they are," said another well-known city businessman who has contributed to Barry's campaign but asked not to be named.

The best measure of Barry's fund-raising ability is a comparison of his Aug. 10 financial report and the financial reports for the 1978 election. In August 1978, incumbent Walter Washington reported that he had raised $130,052; then-City Council chairman Sterling Tucker, who was the front-runner in polls at the time, led the field with $208,116; and Barry reported raising $182,697.

At the same point in this year's campaign, Barry is $700,000 ahead of his 1978 pace.

That dramatic increase prompted Clifford Alexander, the former secretary of the Army who was a candidate for mayor in 1974, to go on television Friday and ask what contributors expect from Barry in exchcange for the money they are stuffing into his campaign treasury.

"In 1974, I got 47 percent of the vote on a campaign run on $98,000," Alexander said in an interview after his televison commentary. "Things have escalated at such an incredible pace and it is not related to inflation. . . . We have fewer people in this city now than we did in 1978 or 1974. I want to know what is the change in attitude that explains the sharp increase in contributions."

Alexander is not the only one asking questions.

Sunday night, while taping a debate that will be televised Saturday afternoon, Barry came under fire from most of his opponents as the rich man's candidate.

"If Marion used as much power to get jobs as he has campaign contributions," said John Ray, "we'd have a good summer jobs programs."

Barry defended himself on the show:

"Let's talk about the democratic process for a moment," he said. "The law says anyone can give from 1 cent to $2,000. I have 5,000 contributors who gave me $900,000. That averages out to $180 per person."

Reporter Jack Conaty interrupted the mayor: "Mr. Barry, we're talking about people who can't afford $100, we're talking about unemployed people and the high rate of unemployment in the city."

After taping the show, Barry told a reporter that the wealth of his campaign treasury is a "non-issue in terms of people who vote."

"It's not who raises the most money or who has the biggest staff," he said. "It's who can deliver services. Since that financial report came out, I've been to a dozen meetings and it has not come up one time."

Although Barry's contributions average $180, his most recent campaign report lists 65 contributions of $1,000 or more, including several from restaurants, developers and contractors. The cochairman of his finance committee, Ann Kinney, gave $1,315 and her husband gave another $1,200. Among Barry's latest contributors are a Los Angeles law firm; Archibald's, the bar with topless dancers; Blues Alley, the jazz club; Dominique's, the restaurant; Moon Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans and secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and the Casino Royale Adult Theatre.

Barry's opponents haven't made his fund-raising an issue in the race, but they disagree with him on the public's reaction.

"In the street," said Charlene Drew Jarvis, the Ward 4 council member who is challenging Barry in the primary, "what folks are saying is that the mayor is buying the election. . . . He made the mistake of thinking that money will determine who wins instead of votes. This is going to be costly to the city. He made promises to get that money, that's how it's done, and those promises are going to have to be kept."

Barry denies that any promises or deal have been made: "If someone thinks they are buying something I don't want his contribution," he said.

But John Ray noted that one city contractor told a reporter at a Barry fund-raiser in April that the mayor's campaign staff called him for a contribution shortly after he received a city contract. Ray said Barry raised suspicions late last year when he said that he would refuse contributions from anyone who also gave money to another candidate.

"The implication was that he wanted to be given money," said Ray. "Not only did you have to give, but you couldn't give to everyone. What does that say to you if your business gets permits and even contracts from the city?"

Patricia Roberts Harris, the mayoral candidate who is second to Barry in fund-raising this year with about $500,000, said she is not puzzled by Barry's landslide of contributions. She said Barry has bragged to her that by the end of the campaign he would have $1 million.

"I told him to his face, so I can tell you," she said. "I said, 'Mr. Barry that's a small amount of money for the sale of the city and you are selling this city.' "