For nearly 15 years, Alexandria Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr. was the grand old man of city politics. The mayor charmed everyone from business leaders to boy scouts and enjoyed such widespread support that by barely dipping into campaign coffers, he was reelected four times.

But now, days before Tuesday's council election, the city's 68-year-old golden grandfather is facing the political challenge of his lifetime.

"It's time for a change," is heard in lunchtime conversations around Old Town, and many political activists are calling Beatley's race against former vice mayor James P. Moran Jr., a tossup.

"I've been a steady Beatley supporter for years," said C.C. Brock, who is a former president of the Chamber of Commerce. "But a lot of people, including myself, think Beatley sold the city down the river over this two-bit scandal."

The scandal that has done soon-to-be-assessed damage to Beatley's political career began last December when the mayor and council member Donald C. Casey demanded a city inquiry into allegations that Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel improperly halted a police drug investigation.

The council voted against the two Democrats' wishes and instead asked a special grand jury to investigate the damaging allegations. As the jury summoned each new witness, further accusations blackened City Hall. When Beatley criticized former city manager Douglas Harman for refusing to put Strobel on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, Harman resigned to take another job in Fort Worth. Many blamed the mayor for the popular manager's sour departure.

Then, on Feb. 27, the grand jury dealt Beatley the blow from which he is still reeling: not only did it vindicate Strobel, but it appeared to chastise Beatley and Casey as the city politicians who had pursued a personal vendetta against Strobel and instigating "one of the lowest points in Alexandria's history."

"There is a mood in the city not to reelect incumbents," said former Democratic council member Mel Bergeim. "It's the fallout from the drug investigation. That brought a lot of dissatisfaction."

All the support Beatley has earned since he first entered city politics in 1958 has not been swallowed by the grand jury controversy. And Moran, still on supervised probation for a conflict-of-interest charge, is not running free of political baggage either.

"Beatley's damaged himself badly, but perhaps not irretrievably," said David G. Speck, a Republican Party regular. Speck, a senior vice president in the Old Town stock brokerage firm of Johnston Lemon & Co., said Beatley still is a "tough, hard-nosed politician who works hard at the image of being everyone's grandfather."

Republicans like Speck know well the wisdom of Beatley's saying: "People don't vote against the man they have a picture of on their mantlepiece." Beatley, who never refuses a photo with a spelling bee winner or a T.C. Williams High School graduate, has 15 years of scrapbook and mantlepiece pictures scattered around Alexandria homes.

By purposefully making time for ribbon cuttings at nursery schools or Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken outlets, he appears daily in community newspapers and is lauded for being a highly visible, "little guys' " mayor.

A distinguished man with snow-white hair and tan, leathery skin, Beatley says he spends 60 hours a week in his $12,500 position. Tirelessly, and with measurable success over the years, the retired United Airlines pilot has attracted millions in new development to the city, polished Old Town into a booming tourist hub, and cleared the waterfront for greater public access.

His long and proven track record is something neither Moran, a Democrat running as an independent, nor John D. Williams III, an independent fiscal conservative, can deny.

As Beatley sat in his newly renovated City Hall office Tuesday, his laid-back demeanor changed instantly with the mention of Moran's name. With considerable intensity, the mayor spoke about the 39-year-old Democrat who once was seen as his favored protege: "I don't want Moran to screw up what we've done for this city over the years, that's why I'm running."

Beatley said he believes Moran's conflict-of-interest charge is a "disability no mayor can afford to have." He also blamed Moran for milking the grand jury controversy and waging the "dirtiest campaign I've been involved in."

Pounding his fist on the conference table and raising his voice, he said, "In hindsight I wouldn't have done anything different. At the time, we needed to find out if there were problems in the police department, because people need to trust their police like they need to trust their politicians."

While Moran plans to blitz Alexandria this weekend, spending the last of the $40,000 in his campaign chest, Beatley says he is going to take it easy. Having spent the most ever in one of his campaigns, $14,000, the mayor says he'll enjoy a quiet weekend, perhaps flying a glider over his Warrenton farm. "What's the use of campaigning now?" he said. "People here know who I am."

"He's like a granduncle who should be made Alexandria's ambassador-at-large," said Alice Halliday, an Old Town political enthusiast and a friend of both Beatley and Moran. It's difficult to say who'll win, Halliday says.