The big guns were out yesterday in the battle over the District's rent control referendum, with the city's two top officials exchanging volleys of harsh rhetoric and each side claiming to represent the interests of D.C. tenants.

In far Southeast, Mayor Marion Barry, making his strongest public statement thus far against the referendum, headed a contingent of seven City Council members at a news conference held to combat what Barry called the "scare tactics and misinformation" employed by referendum supporters.

At a rally downtown, City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, along with council members Frank Smith (D-Ward 1) and Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large), led the charge for referendum supporters and accused the mayor and other opponents of trying to mislead tenants about the true impact of the referendum.

The referendum, which was placed on the ballot after a successful petition campaign by a citywide group of tenants and labor leaders, calls for the repeal of four provisions of the city's newly revised rent control law that would lift controls under certain circumstances.

With Barry taking a more direct role in the referendum campaign in recent days, the issue has taken on broader political overtones and put Barry and Clarke, the city's top two elected officials, on opposite sides of an issue that has aroused strong emotions among two key political constituencies, tenants and landlords.

"I had not intended to be as strongly out front as this," Barry said. He said he is concerned with claims by referendum supporters that opponents of the measure are against rent control. Barry said he remains a strong supporter of rent control, but contended that the referendum will undermine key provisions of the city's new rent control law that are aimed at improving housing for city residents.

"It's a complicated issue," Barry said. "That's why we got concerned by the scare tactics of" referendum supporters, the mayor said, flanked by council members John Ray (D-At Large), a leader of the antireferendum forces, H. R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5), Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).

Both sides within the past week appear to be aiming their arguments at the tenants who live in the city's 159,000 occupied rental units, particularly low- and moderate-income renters.

"A vote against is a vote for low-income people," Barry said. "We don't want a city of extremes, of the very poor and the very rich," the mayor said.

Clarke and Smith both said that the best way to guard against the displacement of low-income tenants is to vote for the referendum. "We do not want to give landlords a blank check to charge anything they want," Clarke said.

Much of the focus yesterday was on the referendum's impact on the new law's provisions for renovating "distressed properties" and for setting up a new rent-subsidy program that the mayor has promised to fund with $15 million next year. The new law permits the city to provide low-interest renovation loans and to waive the collection of back real estate taxes and water and sewer fees on "distressed properties," as an incentive to get landlords to upgrade them.

Clarke said referendum opponents are attempting to create the false impression that if the referendum is approved it will block implementation of the rent-subsidy and the distressed properties renovation program. The provisions would remain intact, he said, and the referendum would simply maintain rent controls on "distressed properties."

Smith said that without controls, lower-income tenants will be driven out of newly renovated buildings because they will not be able to afford the rents.

Ray argued that as long as distressed buildings remain under rent controls, economic factors will prevent landlords from making necessary renovations. Plus, the council member said, without needed renovations tenants will not qualify for the new law's rent subsidies. He said the current law's rent subsidies apply only to upgraded buildings that comply with city housing codes.

Ray said that although rents will rise in renovated buildings, lower-income tenants in such buildings will pay less rent because of the rent subsidies.