Former Redskins running back Larry Brown was surprised last week when he ran into former D.C. City Council chairman Sterling Tucker at a reception for a local radio station and Tucker mentioned that he was running for office again.

"What office are you running for?" Brown asked.

The incident illustrates what Tucker acknowledges is one of his biggest campaign problems in the race to become the Democratic nominee for his old job as council chairman in the Sept. 14 primary -- a lot of people know him, but because he flirted first with the idea of running for mayor and then cast his eyes at an at-large council seat, few people realize he finally decided to seek the chairmanship.

Polls taken after the June 16 announcement of his candidacy, he said, showed that people were unaware of that he was running or "that I was serious about winning. We've got to make that clear."

"People need to know that I'm running and that we are not in a period of speculation and exploring," Tucker said on another occasion. "And people need to see me because I have been out of the public eye for 3 1/2 years . . . so people can see that Sterling Tucker is alive and well."

While Tucker has been essentially out of the public eye since his unsuccessful attempt to become mayor in 1978, his opponents in this year's Democratic primary -- Chairman Arrington Dixon and Ward 1 council member David A. Clarke -- have been very much in the limelight. In addition, both the others began their campaigns earlier and thus have had more time to get organized.

Because of his late entry, Tucker has been forced to campaign and organize a staff simultaneously, and to make himself as visible as possible by appearing at places like auto inspection stations.

"We have to do a week's work every day," he said. "I got in soon enough to campaign," but not in time to build a large organization.

At forums sponsored by community groups, at small gatherings and in the auto inspection lines, Tucker's campaign theme is the same: "the council has lost its direction because it is leaderless."

He tells audiences that as chairman of the first elected City Council in more than 100 years, he helped to build a strong and independent legislative body, but that under his rival Dixon "the council is without leadership, adrift. The council is confused . . . . I want to go back to the council to move this city forward again."

His strategy is to concentrate on reaching voters in the 100 precincts (of the total 137 in the city) that traditionally produce the highest turnouts, he said, instead of trying to reconstruct the elaborate ward and precinct organization he had four years ago in his attempt to become mayor.

Tucker, a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said he plans to make himself a presence in those 100 precincts, visiting supermarkets, holding kaffeeklatsches and going on well-publicized walks.

However, Tucker has another potential problem: While some of his supporters from his mayoral campaign have returned, many have not. Because of Tucker's late entry, many of his friends had already committed themselves to supporting Clarke or Dixon.

In addition, the 1978 campaign ended with bad feelings on the part of some campaign workers. "He just seemed to decide that he needed a rest, and he didn't call us together and thank us for our hard work" after election day, said one former supporter who has remained neutral and who asked not to be named. One high-ranking supporter who has promised to return said Tucker "just didn't do a good job of going back to his people."

"I've apologized whenever I've heard this," Tucker said of the criticism that he was aloof to his former campaign workers. "I have not had the feeling that that is a problem. Whenever I've heard it, I have tried to do something about it."

On the stump, the infancy of Tucker's organization and the candidate's own low-key campaign personality are both evident.

Both Tucker and Dixon are longtime residents of Ward 4 in upper Northwest, but at a recent meeting of the Ward 4 Democratic Club Dixon won the club's endorsement with 78 votes to Clarke's 21 and Tucker's 20. When the club members trooped down the aisle of the Peoples Congregational Church to cast their ballots, Clarke and Dixon were there shaking hands while Tucker stood in the back and spoke to people who approached him.

Last week during a visit to the Capitol View senior citizens' building on East Capitol Street, Tucker entered and shook hands with most of the 50 residents who had gathered to hear his speech on increased programs for the elderly, and stayed for lunch. But he ate with members of his campaign staff while many in the audience sat at a nearby table.

His late entry has also put him behind in fund-raising. This week, Tucker disclosed in a campaign finance statement that he had received $52,444, compared with Dixon's $153,617 and Clarke's $66,270.

Sixty of his 99 contributors were lawyers. Tucker acknowledged that much of that support probably was based on his stated opposition to the council's recently passed no-fault insurance bill, which would reduce the number of lawsuits arising from injuries suffered in traffic accidents -- and therefore reduce the fees of lawyers who specialize in these cases.

"People support you because they think you have a position similar to theirs," Tucker said. "Why is the business community supporting Arrington? People don't give money for good government but because they have an interest in the function of government." Tucker said if elected he would amend the legislation.

Charlotte Chapman, one of Tucker's two campaign chairmen, is the wife of Clinton Chapman, immediate past president of the Association of Plaintiff Trial Attorneys, whose members had strenuously opposed the no-fault legislation for more than a year. Tucker said the Chapmans are longtime personal friends. He added that not all the lawyer contributors handled personal injury cases.

Most council members have so far remained neutral in the race, but H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) and the council's only Republican, Jerry Moore (At-Large), have endorsed Dixon.

Four years ago, Tucker supported Dixon. Tucker now says he "agonized" over the decision to oppose his former political ally but "after talking to a lot of people I decided Arrington had not demonstrated an ability to lead the council . . . . I had hoped he would grow into the job."

Tucker, who is credited with persuading Congress to create the job of an elected council chairman, served as chairman from 1975 to 1979. During his term the council dropped the sales tax on food and drugs, gave tenants the first right to buy their apartment buildings when owners prepared to sell them for condominiums, eased the city's divorce laws, and required the city to give 25 percent of its contracts for work to minority businessmen.

But also during his term, the Labor Department found that the council had misused federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) funds by using them to hire political supporters.

After Tucker left office the city paid the federal government $1.4 million spent on the wages of the 88 employes who were hired improperly. One of the employes worked in Tucker's office when her husband was serving as Tucker's mayoral campaign treasurer.

Tucker has been largely out of local politics since 1978, when he came in second to Marion Barry in the Democratic mayoral primary. In 1979 he was appointed an assistant secretary of housing and urban development, and he set up his own consulting firm when the 1980 elections brought in the Republican administration.