When D.C. Council member William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5) ran for a third term in the 1982 primary, two-thirds of the voters in his Northeast Washington area voted against him. He still won.

Spaulding got 5,383 votes, or 32.8 percent -- but the opposing 11,000 votes were split among five candidates, enabling Spaulding to walk away with his third victory in which he received far less than a majority of the votes.

"I guess everyone figures he has a chance to win," said Frank P. Bolden, a prominent Ward 5 resident and former president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations.

But in this year's Sept. 9 primaries for mayor, council chairman and two at-large and four ward-level council seats, Spaulding has drawn only two major opponents. And in a year when the mayor's race has yet to excite voters, Spaulding's race is one of two council races being watched by political observers, along with the already hot tossup battle raging in Ward 3 to replace retiring council member Polly Shackleton.

Just two months before the primaries, many politicians say challengers in the other races still must demonstrate that they can pose threats to incumbent Chairman David A. Clarke and council members Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large), Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) and Frank Smith (D-Ward 1).

Spaulding's two major Democratic challengers are Robert I. Artisst, a longtime community leader, and Harry L. Thomas, chairman of the Ward 5 Democratic organization and a member of the Alcohol Beverage Control Board. A third candidate, Otosie L. Thorpe, could not be reached for comment.

Thomas and Artisst confirmed last week that they had held a private meeting on June 8 to work out a plan for one of them to drop out of the race, a move designed to put even more pressure on Spaulding.

The plan, sponsored by representatives of tenants groups angry over Spaulding's votes on rent control issues, said that the candidate with the most endorsements, campaign funds and signatures on nominating petitions as of last Wednesday would remain in the race.

Thomas said he had scored better on all three points but that Artisst refuses to go along with the agreement.

"I think he's going to renege," Thomas said Saturday before boarding a double-decker bus for what he said was the first of his weekly, three-hour motorcades through Ward 5's mostly middle-class residential communities.

Artisst, who has lost three previous races by narrow margins, acknowledged last week that he had approved the concept of the plan to narrow the field, but he contended that he never formally endorsed the plan.

"Thomas is the newcomer trying to feel his way," Artisst said. "I would think the newcomer would have to bail out . . . . "

Spaulding, Thomas and Artisst showed up Saturday as Mayor Marion Barry officially opened his Ward 5 headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue NE.

All three candidates claim to be close to Barry, who has not indicated his preference in the race publicly.

Artisst and Thomas say they blame Spaulding for what they see as the area's lack of clout in the District government and lack of commercial and retail amenities that residents of some sections of the city take for granted.

"We want to see not only retail development . . . . Just look at what businesses have left our industrial areas," said Artisst.

Artisst recited the loss of a brick factory, a Maytag parts facility and several other firms along the New York Avenue corridor. "There's tremendous vacant footage out there."

Spaulding, whose office recently mailed local citizens groups free discount tickets to a Virginia amusement park, has done little visible campaigning. He has said that he will run on his record as a veteran member of the 13-member council.

In contrast, the Ward 3 candidates have been been waging their campaigns openly, with four Democratic candidates locked in an all-out battle featuring verbal skirmishes at half a dozen community forums, direct-mail appeals, and a variety of other campaign events.

In addition to Democrats James Nathanson, Mark L. Plotkin, Ruth Dixon and Mary Draper Janney, there are two candidates vying for the the Republican Party's nomination and two in the Statehood Party, which has only 97 registered voters in Ward 3.

The ward, as most of the city, is overwhelmingly registered Democratic, but the entry of Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) into the race for mayor could affect the turnout of Republicans and the result in the ward in the Nov. 4 general election, politicians said.

Dixon, a longtime community worker, ran against Shackleton in 1982 and since then has published a local political journal in anticipation of her race this year.

Plotkin, who also ran against Shackleton in 1982, is a former District elementary teacher and political consultant best known for his opposition to higher utility rates. Nathanson, who has been endorsed by Shackleton, is a high school teacher and former lawyer. Janney is a longtime comunity worker and volunteer who served on the mayor's commission to study teen-age pregnancies.

The four Democratic candidates each possess demonstrated strengths that have tended to split traditional interest groups, such as educators and parents, which often determine elections in Ward 3, which is west of Rock Creek Park and north of Georgetown.

Only about half of the ward's 24,000 registered Democrats are expected to vote in the Sept. 9 primary election, which means that a candidate conceivably could win with 4,000 votes if the race remains close.

In the race for council chairman, former at-large council member Douglas Moore is making his second try for that seat.

At a rally at the District Building Saturday, Moore charged that Clarke "is crying . . . like a wimp" in criticizing Congress and Barry, rather than proposing solutions to the city's troubled prison system.

Moore, who lost a bid for chairman in 1978 and a Ward 5 council race in 1982, suggested that Clarke, who is running for a second term, has failed to promote business in the city.

Moore, an independent oil and gas broker, said in an interview that he wants to turn Washington into an "entrepreneurial city."

"I'm not appealing to welfare workers," he said. "They are going to have to help themselves -- no crutches. Blacks are going to have to get their act together . . . . There ain't no genes that say you can only play basketball. You can be successful in business."

Moore, who is black, said he never has accepted federal or local government contracts and that he counsels black business persons "to go for the whole pie" rather than participate in minority contract set-aside programs run by city agencies.

Clarke, a former Ward 1 council member, declined to respond specifically to Moore.

"My sense is, he is fishing around for something to say," Clarke said, adding: "I have said I am pleased with the substantive and procedural record of the council. I think it has grown."

Clarke said that the council has developed a "healthy independence" from the mayor and works more easily toward compromises among its members. He said that his reelection campaign will stress greater city attention to the use of illegal drugs, allegations of city corruption, and ways of dealing with expected federal cutbacks in aid to the District.