The four Democratic candidates for mayor of the District of Columbia squared off in a long-awaited live television forum last night, a spirited give-and-take that some of the candidates had considered crucial to their chances for winning Tuesday's primary election.

Many of the proposals, rhetorical attacks and campaign promises were the same that had been made throughout the campaign, but last night, during a program broadcast over WDVM-TV (9), the statements were more forceful and the banter more intense.

Many times, there were not opportunities for the candidates to rebut accusations as interviewers Gordon Peterson and Bruce Johnson as well as the other candidates interrupted.

But the program was the last opportunity for the city's 328,000 registered voters to see the candidates in action before the primary, in which most polls have shown incumbent Marion Barry holding a significant lead over all three.

The program began not on issues, but on political maneuvering, with Patricia Roberts Harris, Charlene Drew Jarvis and John Ray sparring over published reports that Harris and her top aides have attempted to persuade the other two challengers, who have lagged far behind in the polls, to drop out of the race and support her.

Both Jarvis and Ray said emphatically they would remain in the race and Jarvis criticized Harris for attempting to knock her off the ballot by challenging her nominating petitions. "That was a dirty trick," Jarvis said.

Barry stayed above the argument, and then went into a recitation of statistics in an effort to portray life in the city as better now than four years ago when he took over -- a major theme of his campaign.

But as Barry began to recount his record, saying he had brought 20,000 summer jobs to the District this year. Moderator Peterson interrupted to note that Barry promised 30,000 jobs when he was elected mayor in 1978.

Then Ray, the most aggressive candidate throughout much of the program, said that Barry's own advisers said the city only produced 16,000 summer jobs this year.

Barry repeatedly sidestepped a question about whether he kept a 1978 campaign pledge to bring light industry to the New York Avenue NE corridor.

"What I promised in 1978 was that I would do all I could to get additional jobs for the District of Columbia," Barry said.

Harris said Barry did virtually nothing to help that area, noting about 240 acres of vacant land on the strip and talking of many "missed opportunities."

Ray also said Barry had brought no light industry to the city, especially to areas outside downtown. He said, 92 percent of those jobs from downtown projects go to suburbanites.

Harris said she had helped bring development to areas on H Street NE. When asked why she did not do more for the District while a cabinet secretary, Harris blamed poor grant applications by the city government.

Harris took credit for initiating an Urban Development Action Grant program while she was secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development that encouraged private investment and created 600,000 jobs nationally.

However, Jarvis cited a federal study that she said indicated there had been problems with the administration of the UDAG program.

Asked about a statement attributed to Barry that "Mickey Mouse could have run" some programs at HUD, Harris said, "That statement comes out of a profound ignorance of the law."

Often Barry complained that he was not being allowed to finish his statements, and at one point, after saying, "I don't want to be rude," he drew a concession from Jarvis, who chuckled, "Go ahead, Mr. Mayor."

Barry said his administration had been compassionate by not cutting Medicaid benefits as surrounding jurisdictions have done.

But Jarvis challenged that alleged compassion, noting that Barry had closed the Upshur Street Clinic in upper Northwest and said Harris, as secretary of Health and Human Services, could have prevented that closing and others.

Barry was criticized for not improving many city services, including street paving, until the election year. He replied that the money for such projects had been approved in budgets proposed earlier in his tenure.

At 11 o'clock, the participants broke to allow the station's newscast. When the program resumed for the final hour, the candidates discussed race in the campaign, with Harris criticizing Barry for refusing until last night to publicly disavow a statement attributed to his campaign manager, Ivanhoe Donaldson, that Barry was the "black candidate" in the race.

Harris said she considered the statement "a virile kind of racism which says that people who are successful or that people who look a certain way or talk a certain way, even if they are sociologically and genetically black are no longer part of the black community." She said it calls for "class and color discrimination within the black community."

Barry denied that Donaldson made the statement to The Washington Post, and insisted that Harris was the only candidate who has raised the issue of race in the campaign by calling a press conference based on the Donaldson statement.

Ray then criticized Harris for describing the city as "worse that a banana republic," because of problems that the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has encountered in preparing an accurate voter registration list.

"I don't think this city is run worse than a banana republic," Ray said.

"I don't apologize for those responsible for the board of elections," Harris replied. "If you don't like my imagery, I'm sorry."

About 20 to 25 supporters of the candidates watched the program from the station's conference room. For the most part, the crowd was quiet, almost somber.

The room rocked with howls of laughter at one point when Barry told Jarvis, "Why are you interrupting me? You're so nice on the campaign trail."