Opponents and proponents of a D.C. voter initiative that would place a refundable nickel deposit on most beverage bottles and cans are gearing up for what promises to be an expensive and hotly contested battle.

While legislators in Maryland and Virginia have repeatedly rejected proposals for a mandatory deposit law, the bottle bill question will be put to the voters in the District this fall.

If it passes, the city would join nine states, including New York, Massachusetts and Michigan, with similar legislation on the books.

The measure's future is uncertain. A powerful and affluent group of beverage bottlers, glass packagers and grocery stores has already contributed more than $200,000 to a group called the Clean Capital City Committee, which is working to defeat the initiative.

By contrast, campaign finance reports filed by the Bottle Bill Initiative Campaign this year showed that groups such as the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Rock Creek Sierra Club have joined with individuals to raise only about $12,000 in support of the issue.

The marked difference in financial backing was highlighted again this week when the industry-backed group filled a Washington Hilton ballroom with more than 1,000 people who paid $50 each to hear speeches opposed to the bottle bill.

Many of the tickets, Clean Capital City Committee spokesman Ed Arnold said, were paid for by "merchants and concerned people" who handed them out to scores of elderly and other people. "We feel that {the proposal} is a piecemeal solution to the problem of litter in the District of Columbia," Arnold said.

But the initiative's backers, who gathered 17,805 signatures last fall to get it on the ballot, see it another way. Once the question is put to the voters, they argue, it will pass.

"We've got the support of over 80 community organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the Federation of Civic Associations and 30 of the 37 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions that have endorsed us," said Peter Williams, a bottle bill supporter who is executive director of the D.C. chapter of Common Cause, a citizens watchdog group.

The campaign in the District appears to have produced a limited ripple effect elsewhere. Maryland bottle bill advocates, for example, suspended their perennial effort in Annapolis this year, hoping that a successful District effort would provide ammunition next year.

To succeed, bottle bill advocates in the District will have to overcome their opponents' planned six-month-long radio advertisement campaign and strategy to portray the measure as an elitist issue that could hurt the poor.

The Hilton rally featured former D.C. Council chairman Sterling Tucker, who now has a consulting business and is being reimbursed by the Clean Capital City Committee for the expenses he incurs as a spokesman for the bottle bill opponents.

"My view is that {the bottle bill} is a form of regressive tax, and generally those who suffer most from a regressive tax are those who can least afford it," Tucker said in an interview. The measure has failed elsewhere because "across the country it's the yuppie types who are pushing this initiative . . . the poor and the common and the elderly people are opposed to it," Tucker said.

Both sides, however, claim to represent the best interests of the average District resident. Williams, of Common Cause, said that small-business people will not be hurt by the bill because a 2-cent handling fee for each container is built into the legislation -- offsetting the cost of storage and collection.

For the initiative's supporters, the outcome turns on how well they are able to finance their effort with individual donations expected to average about $20 each.

The Clean Capital City Committee, in contrast, has received donations of $45,000 from the Glass Packaging Institute and $5,000 each from soft drink and can manufacturers.