He seems an unlikely Lazarus, incessantly jogging about town, his youth and vigor always on display. James P. Moran Jr., running hard for mayor of Alexandria only a year after he was forced to resign from the City Council, appears to have risen from political ruin.

On Tuesday, Alexandria voters will let Moran know whether he has recovered from his dizzying fall last year, when he pleaded no contest to a conflict-of-interest charge.

The year has been a tough one for Moran, 39, once considered among Northern Virginia's most promising Democrats, but perhaps even more difficult for Alex- andria.

The city government has been buffeted by a bitter controversy surrounding allegations that its director of public safety, Charles T. Strobel, ended a police drug investigation prematurely.

In February, a special grand jury found no merit to those charges, but the political residue from the investigation, which Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr. supported, has helped grant Moran a safe path back to the soapbox.

"Chuck looks for the worst in people," Moran said of Beatley, 68, his former patron and principal opponent.

"He is divisive and intolerant. Alexandria desperately needs leaders. Chuck is no longer a leader."

Moran and Beatley have pounded away at each other with growing vehemence at candidates' forums during the last several weeks.

Moran has been highly critical of the mayor's handling of the drug investigation.

Beatley, in turn, has accused Moran of being "the darling of the developers," a reference to his conflict-of-interest plea, which came after a special prosecutor found that Moran had a business relationship with a developer who was trying to negotiate a land deal with the city.

"This race is getting nastier every single day," said a former Alexandria officeholder, who asked not to be named.

"Two weeks ago I would have given it to Chuck, but Moran is sticking him pretty hard."

Three years ago nobody would have predicted this race, and its acrimonious battle between two men who campaigned together in 1982.

At that time Moran, who was elected to a second council term by more votes than anyone had ever polled in an Alexandria election, and had been given the title of vice mayor, was considered certain to succeed Beatley, who is now in his fifth three-year term, and supposedly had planned to retire this year.

Even before his resignation Moran had started to distance himself from the mayor, who had long advocated large waterfront development projects, increased bus service, a new library and other capital programs that have been aimed largely at restoring the luster to Old Town, Alexandria's major tourist attraction.

"Integrity has been the hallmark of my career," Beatley said Tuesday night at a forum that included Moran and John D. Williams III, a conservative who is running as an independent.

"We know that Moran is close to developers, his own conflict of interests point that out. I certainly never had one of those."

Moran, who is divorced and lives with his two teen-aged children in the Del Ray section, calls his conflict-of-interest plea the darkest point in his career.

"It crushed me," he said. "I just wasn't ready for what happened."

In addition to resigning from the council, he was placed on one year of unsupervised probation.

It derailed a career that some said might have taken Moran to Congress.

"He had a lot going for him, he's a real politician and he was on the way up very fast," said Wiley F. Mitchell Jr., the city's Republican state senator.

Moran came to Alexandria from Natick, a suburb of Boston, after receiving a graduate degree in public administration from the University of Pittsburgh.

He worked as an accountant and budget officer for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, then the Library of Congress and finally the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In 1978, he was named an outstanding Young Man in America by the Jaycees.

He left the Senate job when he was elected to the City Council in 1979.

Today Moran, a stockbroker, tries to steer away from the conflict issue and stress his concerns about the way Alexandria is changing.

He has raised almost $40,000 and spent more than three times as much on the race as Beatley.

The mayor's position is considered part-time and pays $12,500 annually.

"I am afraid that we are becoming a city with no middle class," Moran said.

"I want to keep the diversity that makes us a real city. Many of the big projects here over the past 20 years were designed to attract affluent people coming here to exploit our amenities and location."

Moran said he wants more public housing, better salaries for teachers, a significant day care program and other social service aids designed for middle-class families.

"We have to switch priorities, and get away from the big gesture," he said.

"I believe in a government that mixes compassion with thrift," Moran continued

As for himself Moran said he understands what is at stake.

"If I lose this race I'm going to find out if there is life after politics," he said. "Frankly, I doubt there is."