Ward 3 City Council member and candidate for reelection Polly Shackleton was sitting in a Tunlaw Road NW condominium last week chatting with the 20 or so guests who had gathered over wine and cheese to meet her. She reminded everyone present to catch the view from the window of the "lovely Tunlaw Gardens" before they left.

Quietly, she related how she and other neighborhood residents had defeated a U.S. Park Service proposal several years ago that would have required some Tunlaw area residents to give up little plots they had been tilling for years.

Shackleton has lined up dozens of similar political chips in her years on the council, and now she is trying to cash them in as she makes the rounds at the bus stops and supermarkets and in the homes of Ward 3 seeking the Democratic nomination for a third term.

But she is facing her most serious challenge, squaring off against two younger candidates, both of whom praise her early years on the council but contend that the 72-year-old Shackleton has grown too weary to adequately represent the city's most affluent ward.

Former D.C. League of Women Voters president Ruth Dixon, 60, is running against Shackleton, hoping to win with the support of the public school activists who carried Ward 3 school board member Wanda Washburn into office last year. (Washburn herself is remaining neutral.)

Mark Plotkin, 35, a member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B who worked in the presidential campaigns of Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), is also running. He is trying to attract new and younger voters in the ward.

The three candidates are speaking to the same issues: those that relate to the particular character of Ward 3. It is a residential section where property values and rents are among the highest in the city, where one-fourth of the city's elderly live and where the constituents are among the city's best educated and most politically astute.

All three candidates support rent control; the city's strong condominium conversion law, which provides significant protections for tenants; stronger police protection and Neighborhood Watch programs; better bus service; and broader health care services for the elderly.

"I don't get the feeling from talking to people that the campaign has created a lot of excitement, that people are mad or fighting because of what one candidate has or hasn't said," said Allen Beach, a member of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3G. "It's not a vindictive campaign; there's been no name-calling, no mudslinging."

The winner in the Democratic primary will face Republican candidate Lois L. DeVecchio, an ANC 3D commissioner, in the November general election.

The Democratic challengers say the primary election probably will be decided on the question of leadership style.

"Philosophically, I'm not much different from Mrs. Shackleton," said Plotkin, an energetic, fast-talking political consultant who claims to have visited 8,000 residences during his daily door-to-door canvassing of the ward.

But unlike Shackleton, he said, he intends to be "a thorn in the side of the bureaucracy," aggressively seeking out people he believes can help solve the ward's problems and finding solutions before problems become crises.

He said Shackleton probably could have prevented the conversion of thousands of Ward 3 rental units to condominiums if she had proposed a moratorium on such changes long before she did. He said she also could have done more to save bus routes along Connecticut Avenue to the downtown shopping area and the Kennedy Center.

"It's time for a change," said Dixon, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and director of the Ward 3 "Meals on Wheels" program. "Mrs. Shackleton has been a good representative in the past. . . . We share many of the same views, but it's time for her to step down," Dixon told some elderly residents last week at a kaffeeklatsch at an upper Connecticut Avenue apartment.

Dixon said that "people are fed up to the teeth with reading all those stories that make our government look stumbling and bumbling" and charged that Shackleton has, in some instances, contributed to that image.

She cited Shackleton's votes on certain measures, such as her vote to reform the city's estate tax laws. The reform later was rescinded because of massive public opposition.

Dixon also noted that the problem-ridden Department of Human Services, the city's recreation programs and libraries, which have had signficant budget cuts in recent years, fall under the purview of the council's Committee on Human Services, which Shackleton heads.

In response, Shackleton said she has sponsored or cosponsored legislation that led to the rent control laws, formation of the D.C. Commission on Aging, stiffer child abuse laws, special parking for the handicapped, improved day-care services, tax relief for senior citizens and the removal of lead-based paint from public housing projects.

She also noted she cosponsored legislation to provide increased sentences for those convicted of committing crimes against senior citizens and set up a special fund to compensate victims of violent crimes.

But Shackleton especially cited her record on responding to individual constituents' concerns, which she said allowed her to list the names of 1,137 supporters in campaign literature.

To her critics' complaints that she is not physically up to the job, she said: "I continue to be extremely active, not only in the District Building and in my committee activities. I do a great deal of work out in the ward, meeting with ANCs, citizens' associations, testifying at many hearings. There are plenty of people who will attest to how active I've been."

Shackleton has raised the most money in the campaign--about $30,000--and has the support of most of the ward's party regulars.

Dixon said she's raised about $22,000, including her and her husband's contributions that total $5,507. She has been endorsed by The Northwest Current and The Georgetowner, two community papers; a number of labor unions; a landlord group; and a Realtors' association. Ten of Wanda Washburn's key campaign advisors work for her.

Plotkin has raised about $21,000. He has been endorsed by The D.C. Gazette and several parents active in school issues.