When Alexandria Mayor Charles E. Beatley won his fifth term as the city's top elected official by a wide margin in 1982, he described the city as "one big family."

But this spring, the city's politicans are sounding more like the contestants on television's "Family Feud." In the final days of a bitter campaign, which ends Tuesday, Beatley is running neck and neck with former vice mayor James P. Moran Jr., and the historically Democratic council majority is fearful of a Republican takeover.

"It's been unusually divisive," said Joann Miller, the Democratic Party chair. "This one is going down to the wire."

Alexandria registrar Harold W. Payne said the close race is expected to bring a record turnout for the council elections. He expects about 40 percent of the city's 52,700 registered voters to go to the polls. They will open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

Perhaps because so much is at stake, the accusations have been personal and the intensity high. If Moran defeats Beatley, it would mean the end of a 15-year era, and if four Republicans take seats on the seven-member council, it would be a first this century.

The Republicans did not field a candidate for mayor, but they have offered a full slate of candidates for the six council seats. The Democrats also have a full slate, and there are two independents in the field. The top six vote-getters will win three-year terms on the council. The mayor is elected separately for his part-time, $12,500-a-year job and casts the seventh -- and currently deciding -- vote on the council, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

The three incumbent Republicans, Caryle C. Ring, Margaret B. Inman and Robert L. Calhoun, are considered front-runners, and the party has three other candidates who are making a strong run at the three seats now held by Democrats. But most attention has been focused on the race for mayor.

"Chuck isn't a leader," Moran said yesterday morning from his Del Ray home, where 100 volunteers were mapping last-minute strategy for the election.

Once a ready member of Beatley's "big family," Moran was elected in 1982 as a Democratic vice mayor.

The 39-year-old stockbroker, who was forced out of office by a conflict-of-interest charge, disregarded conventional political wisdom as well as his party ties in March to challenge Beatley as an independent. Like the mayor, Moran hasn't wasted time mincing words.

"He's Beatley out of touch with the city's needs," Moran said. "He's lost perspective. He doesn't tolerate Republicans, teachers or city employes."

"I have my integrity," Beatley shot back yesterday, after assembling a large screen in his back yard on which to watch the running of the Kentucky Derby. "And that's more than I can say for my opponent."

A 68-year-old retired airline pilot who now runs a glider school near a 300-acre Warrenton farm he owns, Beatley said he does not believe Moran deserves the public trust after his "brush with the law." Moran remains on probation from his conflict-of-interest plea, which grew out of his ties to an Old Town developer.

"I've always represented the average person, but Jim's backers are the wheeler-dealer developers," Beatley said.

A third mayoral candidate, independent John D. Williams III, 47, is expected by most city politicans to play a minor role in the election. He is head of the conservative Alexandria Taxpayers Alliance and has called for tax cuts, saying the city is wasting money on many programs.

Regardless of who becomes mayor, the Republicans are pinning their historic hopes on unseating Democrat Donald C. Casey and/or Democrat Lionel C. Hope.

The third Democratic incumbent, Vice Mayor Patricia S. Ticer, 38, a part-time real estate agent, is generally considered to have a safer seat.

After nine years as the whistle-blower on the council, Casey may find that he was too sharp-spoken over the matter of Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel. With Beatley's help, Casey led the calls for a city inquiry into allegations that Strobel had last year prematurely halted a police drug probe. A special grand jury that investigated the allegations vindicated Strobel and brought an avalanche of criticism on Casey and Beatley for attacking Strobel.

"Casey is a terminal troublemaker," said one city politican who asked not to be named. Others say that Casey is so well known after three successful council elections that it will be difficult for a nonincumbent to unseat him.

Some members of the the city's sizeable black community have voiced dissatisfaction with Hope, the only black council member, saying the 60-year-old accountant has not been assertive on minority issues.

Four other blacks, including School Board member Lynnwood G. Campbell Jr., 38, are in the race. Campbell, a Democratic-endorsed candidate running as an independent, generally is considered a front-runner.

The others are: independent Lewis J. Carter III, a 48-year-old financial consultant; Republican William Cleveland, a 36-year-old Capitol Hill police officer, and independent Bruce T. Adkins, a 29-year-old architecture consultant.

Rounding out the slate of 14 council candidates are Repubican Angus S. Lamond Jr., 38, a former city employe; J. Harvey Harrison, Jr., 57, a retired Navy officer; Craig Coverdale, 53, a retired Army officer and former congressional candidate, and Democrat Redella S. (Del) Pepper, 42, a former aide to Beatley.

"People seem to be saying they want a change," said Andrea Dimond, the president of the Old Town Civic Association. "But we won't know until the last vote is counted on Tuesday."