that is, the election year -- has officially commenced in the District of Columbia.

The Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, a gay and lesbian rights group, got into the spirit early by voting this week to endorse their candidate, Mayor Marion Barry, before he had announced his plans to seek a third term. The members wanted to give him a campaign contribution of $2,000, too, but they will have to wait until Barry sets up a campaign organization to legally accept the funds.

Barry followed suit nicely. At a reception held by the Stein club following the endorsement, the mayor announced his choice of a campaign manager -- but not his campaign. That, he indicated coyly, would have to wait for a more "strategic" time.

But in the meantime, Barry wanted the group to know that Anita Bonds, who served as deputy campaign manager in his other two mayoral races and who is now a special assistant at the city's housing department, is waiting in the wings to run the campaign "if" he chooses to run.

Not so shy about announcing are Mattie Taylor, a retired official of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, and Dennis Sobin, publisher of sexually oriented newspapers, the only two so far to offically enter the race. They both appeared at the Stein endorsement forum, making their cases for why they should be elected mayor.

In an apparent reference to the recent guilty plea of Ivanhoe Donaldson, Barry's political confidant and a former top city official, Taylor told the group that if she were elected, "Scandals about thieving that I 'knew nothing about' will not happen."

Donaldson pleaded guilty in federal court to having defrauded the city of more than $190,000. The mayor has said he was unaware of what Donaldson had done until an internal city investigation.

Sobin's latest claim to fame is what he has described as his weekly "clothes optional" parties for swinging couples in his home, where he lives with his wife and three of his five children. Despite a recent stint in the D.C. Jail, after he was convicted on charges stemming from one of those parties, Sobin said the parties will continue.

Sobin left the forum in protest because he said the group's mind was made up for Barry. But first he deplored the fact that various forms of sexual activities between consenting adults are still illegal in the District, making homosexuals technically "criminals."

Taylor at this point broke in to declare that "90 percent of us are criminals under D.C. law -- we've got adultery, fornication . . . . "

After the presentations, the club voted 61 to 9 to endorse Barry, who did not appear until after the endorsement.

The president of the club, Christine Riddiough, said the group is comfortable with the early endorsement and that, "I don't think anyone is going to make a serious challenge to his candidacy."

So far, anyway, that appears to be the case. The last time around was different. The late Patricia Roberts Harris, a member of the Carter administration cabinet, mounted a strong challenge to Barry in 1982. Four of the 13 members of the D.C. City Council entered the race as well.

Riddiough said that the test of her group's influence this year will be less in the mayoral race than in the "more hotly contested" city council battles. The group probably will delay making endorsements in those races until June, she said, when the field has settled more.

The club's clout got a tip of the hat from the mayor, who called the group "the New Hampshire of D.C. politics."

And like the New Hampshire primary, the first in the country, its endorsement marks an early beginning to what in the fall may be remembered as a long campaign year.