William Spaulding, who retained his Ward 5 City Council seat in 1978 by a scant 360 primary votes, is fighting again this year to stave off a field of challengers who criticize the incumbent for his low-key performance on the council.

In seeking a third term in office, the 56-year-old Spaulding faces four challengers in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary. Former at-large council member Douglas Moore is vying for the seat, while UDC faculty member Robert Artisst, the man who almost beat Spaulding last time around, is making another try.

Bob King, the former director of the 14th Street Project Area Committtee and also an unsuccessful candidate against Spaulding in the last election, is back on the ballot this year, along with newcomer Rick Lee, manager and vice president of a Northwest Washington flower and card shop.

The wide field of challengers is typical of elections in Ward 5, a predominantly black community of moderate-income families who claim as home the upper northeast section of Washington and a sliver of Northwest.

In the past, Spaulding has defeated as many as seven primary candidates, claiming narrow victories there and going on to retain his seat virtually unopposed in the general elections.

The perennial large field of challengers, Spaulding's critics say, is because of his often soft-spoken leadership style and the feeling that Ward 5 residents want a more dynamic representative. Artisst charges, for example, that Spaulding has been so lackluster on the council that "anybody and everybody feels they can get in the race ."

Spaulding answers by saying voters will have to decide "whether or not they're going to maintain leadership and experience, or are they going back to the drawing board."

The three candidates initially considered front-runners were those with the best-known names: old rivals Spaulding and Artisst, along with Moore, the high-profile, often-controversial civil rights activist and former councilman.

Lee, however, picked up some momentum with the endorsement of Democrat Rufus Langford, president of the Carver Terrace Tenants Association, who was disqualified by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics for not having the required number of petition signatures.

So far Lee, Artisst and Moore have raised the most money, all just over $10,000, according to campaign finance reports filed this month. The reports show the incumbent with about $8,000 and King trailing with about $5,000.

In recent days, Artisst's campaign has begun using 30-second radio spots. The others, meanwhile, are still depending on leaflets, posters and door-to-door campaigning to get their messages across.

So far, much of the campaigning in Ward 5 has focused on the issues of taxes--the ward has a preponderance of homeowners, who this week received by mail their increased property tax assessments -- and commercial development, a subject that has been debated in Ward 5 for the last 10 years.

All the candidates -- including W. Ronald Evans, the unopposed Republican who will face the winner of the Democratic primary in the November general election -- said they view commercial development and the jobs it can bring as a major issue. Ward 5 has more than 40 percent of the city's zoned industrial land.

The challengers also say the incumbent's record is as much an issue as anything else.

Besides critizing Spaulding's low-key leadership style, candidates charge that commercial development has languished during his seven years in office, and partly blame Spaulding, chairman of the Government Operations Committee, for election snafus and continuing errors in the city's water-billing system.

In a recent interview, Spaulding said few of those administrative foul-ups have anything to do with his legislative responsibilities, and said efforts to increase development are continuing.

A resident of the Woodridge neighborhood, Spaulding said his record in fighting crime is distinguished by Neighborhood Crime Watch, now a citywide program, which he says originated in Ward 5 under his tutelage. He lists his annual Metro Talent Search contest as one of his office's top accomplishments.

To address unemployment, Spaulding said he is proposing legislation to establish an Urban Institute that would determine job skills needed in city government and would train young residents to fill the jobs. In the meantime, Spaulding said, he is alleviating unemployment in part by hiring local high school and college students in an on-the-job training internship program.

Former council member Moore, one of Spaulding's harshest critics, charges the incumbent with trying to solve serious concerns with "Mickey Mouse" programs. Moore, a resident of Brookland, said he believes keeping tax assessments down is the ward's most pressing problem.

Moore is a veteran District politician who in the past has been fond of confrontational tactics. He has been out of politics in recent years, having lost a 1978 bid for the council chairmanship and an at-large council race in 1979.

The 54-year-old Moore spent six months in jail last year in connection with an assault charge stemming from allegations that he bit a truck driver in a fight behind the District Building in 1975.

Other candidates love to bring up the incident. "I'm not gonna bite anybody," said Lee, a Michigan Park resident.

Themes of Artisst's campaign have included support for a moratorium on property tax assessments and a proposal to use underutilized school buildings in the ward to house D. C. government offices.

Artisst, 48, is a four-time Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, has been president of the Brookland Civic Association for five years and is widely known in the ward. His opponents contend, though, that his recognition could work against him.

"People are beginning to label [Artisst] as a loser. People don't like to put their money on a horse that never shows," said King, who also has sought the council seat before and lost. King, 42, who lives in Fort Lincoln, says ward unity is his top priority and one of his first official acts if elected would be opening a ward office in the community.

Lee, 38, is concentrating on the crime issue and advocates increased police patrols in residential neighborhoods.

Republican Evans, a 44-year-old real estate broker who lives in Brookland, supports economic development by private businessess in partnership with the community. Overall, his approach is considered pro-business. "You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the one who produces the wages," he said in a recent interview.

He says he believes he can win in the ovewhelmingly Democratic ward.