They faced each other along the walls of the stuffy, dimly lit lobby of the Plaza West Cooperative on Columbia Road -- the people with blue-and-white "Frank Smith for Council" buttons on one side, and the supportersof Marie Nahikian, with their red-and-white Nahikian cards on the other.

In the middle stood the two candidates, both perspiring, both bouncing nervously on the balls of their feet. Each was trying to convince this group of former tenants who had fought hard to purchase their apartment building that the other would be a second-best City Council member on the issue of tenants' rights.

In Ward 1, where housing consists mostly of rental units, the tenant vote has become a focal point in a tight race between frontrunners Smith and Nahikian, one-time co-workers who have emerged as the major contenders in the Democratic primary in a field of five, according to political observers in the ward.

Though Smith is currently the Ward 1 representative on the school board, both candidates originally became known in the area through their work with the Adams-Morgan Organization, a community group Nahikian is credited with founding. Now these two longtime associates find themselves competing, often bitterly, for the same constituency.

At the Plaza West forum last week, Smith stressed his involvement in the Seaton Street project, the first in which city tenants received federal aid to purchase their homes from landlords who wanted to evict them and sell the property. He claimed credit for getting the Perpetual American Bank to guarantee that it would make mortgage loans to Ward 1 tenants seeking to buy their buildings through cooperatives, when the bank located a branch at Columbia Road and 18th Street NW.

When it came her turn to speak, Nahikian also pointed to her involvement with the Seaton Street project and her work with the D.C. Department of Housing, claiming to be "one of the first people in the city" who addressed the problems of residents of the ward who were being displaced as landlords converted their apartment buildings to high-priced condominiums, and as skyrocketing real estate taxes forced longtime homeowners to move.

Because the two major candidates have similar positions on the issues and similar community backgrounds, many Ward 1 political activists say the race will come down to a personality contest.

"Both candidates are good, well-versed in the issues," said Anwar S. Saleem, chairman of the Ward 1 Democrats. "Both have come up through the ANCs [Advisory Neighborhood Commissions] and have been affiliated with the Ward 1 Democrats. They tend to fight for the same causes. I think it will come down to a question of name recognition and personality."

Against the ward's varied backdrop, both candidates are trying hard to show that they they understand and represent the needs of both the haves and the have-nots, the politically astute and the politically alienated of the area.

The ward has the largest field of council candidates. In the Democratic race, Reuben Lewis, a financial analyst; Calvin O. Wingfield, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employe; and Glenn L. Reitze, an attorney, also are running. There are three Republican candidates: former elections board chairman Charles Fisher, ANC Commissioner Nancy Shia and Jacob Sherrill Jr., an accountant.

Maurice Jackson, a Communist Party U.S.A. organizer who has run unsuccessfully in a number of previous D.C. contests, is running in Ward 1 as an independent.

Nahikian's strategy has been to portray Smith as a one-time grass-roots activist who somehow changed after holding elected office. When she campaigns door-to-door in the ward, canvassing along streets of decrepit, foul-smelling apartment buildings or freshly renovated row houses, she stresses that she will be a council member "you can put your hands on."

In one of the campaign's more vitriolic disputes, Nahikian recently accused Smith of bowing to the interests of developers and property owners -- who are viewed by many Ward 1 tenants as the neighborhood bullies -- after Smith received an endorsement from the political action committee of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Nahikian circulated copies of AOBA's endorsement of Smith, in which the organization identified her as "a tenant activist we must defeat." These copies went out with a letter some of her supporters had composed, lauding her efforts to organize and help tenants.

So explosive is the housing issue that Smith promptly countered by mailing a letter to the association and to Ward 1 residents, announcing that he would reject the association's endorsement and would accept no campaign contributions from the landlord group.

Smith, who has been one of the more moderate, low-key members of the school board, has grown more belligerent as the campaign progresses. He often accuses Nahikian of running a "negative campaign" and frequently points out that Nahikian has raised twice as much money as he has for his campaign and has received contributions from bankers and developers.

Nahikian had raised about $14,976 as of the last campaign finance reporting period. Smith reported raising $8,476.

At the Plaza West meeting, Smith also criticized Nahikian for accepting the support of Ward 8 school board member R. Calvin Lockridge, whom he identified as being in large part responsible for the infighting that has led to a poor public image of the school board.

Smith's overall strategy is to present himself as an experienced elected official who, unlike Nahikian, has been concerned with issues besides housing, such as education. His campaign slogan is "Experience, Know-How."

"I can hit the ground running as your council member," he often says to those who will listen as he tries to pass out his literature at bus stops or in front of supermarkets.

Nahikian's approach reflects her grass-roots background. Her election committee is called "People For Marie" and her campaign literature is decorated with red hearts and the slogan, "She's won our hearts. . . . She'll win yours."