When Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) conceded last week that the 1987 drive for District statehood had fizzled, he blamed it on the delaying tactics of House Republicans and the protracted battle over Robert H. Bork's Supreme Court nomination that diverted energy from the effort.

But House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), a rock-ribbed statehood supporter, offered a much different explanation for why the statehood bill never reached the House floor: Fauntroy didn't have the votes.

"There wasn't any deliberate disposition on the part of the leadership to delay it," Wright said recently. "There's a perception they just don't have the votes lined up on this."

Wright's assessment is echoed by Rep. Stan Parris (Va.), the ranking Republican on the House District of Columbia Committee and Fauntroy's chief nemesis. Despite Fauntroy's repeated forecasts of a major victory in the House this year, Parris said, "I think Walter clearly was swimming upstream."

A former civil rights activist and a 16-year veteran of the House, Fauntroy, 54, staked his prestige on winning quick action on his bill this year, but some critics believe he mishandled it.

"He diddled away a lot of time and energy on this thing," a key lobbyist for the D.C. statehood coalition said this week.

In a recent interview, Fauntroy defended his performance, noting that even without the help of the "first team" of national civil rights groups, which were busy fighting Bork's nomination, he had lined up the support of 188 House members, just 30 votes shy of a majority.

"The short of it is I remain as confident as I was at the beginning that we will be able to pass this measure in the House and Senate, and I look forward to the whole team being on the field between now and the 1988 vote in the House," he said.

From the beginning, Fauntroy boasted he could galvanize a nationwide network of D.C. sympathizers, civil rights groups and political allies he has cultivated over the years to score an impressive victory in the House, one that would demonstrate strong popular support going into a much tougher fight in the Senate, where conservative Republicans have threatened a filibuster.

Even without a vote to trade, Fauntroy, one of five nonvoting delegates in Congress, had been an effective advocate in the past. As chairman of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs subcommittee on monetary affairs, Fauntroy won high marks for improving relations between Congress and the Federal Reserve Board. He took a leading role last year in persuading Congress to impose economic sanctions against the South African government. Recently, he succeeded in boosting U.S. aid to Haiti.

Josephine Butler, a leader of the D.C. Statehood Party, praised Fauntroy's overall handling of the bill but said he made a tactical mistake by repeatedly setting deadlines for a vote on the floor that raised false expectations.

Fauntroy initially predicted a vote last spring, then said it would come shortly before the July 4 congressional recess, and finally predicted a fall vote before announcing last week that the vote had been put off until early next year, possibly January or February.

"I think we are all still on target," Butler said. "The confusing thing was he kept setting deadlines."

But others contend that the statehood effort has been damaged by the delay and insist that Fauntroy must accept some of the blame.

Some District officials and statehood activists said that Fauntroy, president of the National Black Leadership Roundtable and pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church, has trouble focusing on the nuts and bolts of statehood lobbying.

An aide to a D.C. Council member said there were frequent mix-ups in assignments, and that once council members were called to the Hill by Fauntroy for a lobbying blitz when many of the targeted House members were away.

"Things were getting screwed up all the time," said the aide.

"You have a problem in the House that, as far as the District is concerned, Fauntroy is the only game in town," said a statehood lobbyist, who declined to be identified. "You can't get around him so you have to work with him . . . . We still think it {statehood} is doable, and people are trying to figure out a way to work with Walter and not let him derail the process."

Critics said there were more fundamental problems as well, contending that: Fauntroy ignored repeated warnings that Congress was in no mood to approve statehood for the District this year, in light of the highly publicized federal grand jury corruption probe of Mayor Marion Barry's administration.

Council member John Ray (D-At Large) said he was convinced from the start that "all these disruptive {investigative} activities gave House members an excuse not to vote for statehood." Fauntroy labeled those who raised the corruption issue as "hypocrites" -- since many of them were from states that had corruption problems of their own -- or mischief-makers attempting to undermine black leaders. He misjudged the difficulty of selling a bill that, in effect, would automatically grant statehood to the District, after D.C. officials were unable in seven years to persuade three-fourths of the states to ratify the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment for full representation in Congress. Fauntroy pooh-poohed the constitutional arguments against statehood, although many House members were either confused or troubled by a plan that would carve a 51st state from the Federal City. At the heart of the debate was whether Congress was prevented from granting statehood by Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution, which states Congress may exercise "exclusive legislation" over the District.

Others questioned whether Maryland would have to consent to the creation of the new state, whether the 23rd Amendment awarding three electoral votes to the District would first have to be repealed, and whether Fauntroy, the mayor and the D.C. Council were justified in scrapping a voter-approved statehood constitution in favor of a less controversial document.

In response, Fauntroy cited legal scholars who believe that there were no legitimate barriers to Congress approving the bill.

Fauntroy also encountered a far more generalized resistance to D.C. statehood. The views of Rep. Stephen L. Neal (D-N.C.), a colleague of Fauntroy's on the House Banking Committee, underscore the problem that Fauntroy faced.

Neal should be one of those eager to support the statehood cause. He represents a predominantly Republican district with a sizable black population that is important to his political base. Fauntroy, a friend of his, has campaigned for his reelection. Yet Neal said he's against statehood and doesn't think it will pass. Moreover, he said, Fauntroy never asked him personally for his vote.

"I don't think we need another state," Neal said. "I think 50 is enough. There are some good reasons for keeping a federal city . . . . I sympathize with Walter's argument that the folks here ought to be able to vote, but there are other ways of doing it besides creating a state."

In fending off attacks on his bill, Fauntroy borrowed a line from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in asserting that most critics of statehood believe the District is "too urban, too progressive, too Democratic or too black."

When Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.) voted with the Republicans against the bill in the House District Committee June 3, Fauntroy told the Roll Call newspaper that Mazzoli had been motivated by "either racism or conservatism, or maybe both."

Fauntroy later said he had been quoted out of context and that he didn't believe Mazzoli is a racist. But by then the damage had been done. Mazzoli, who also serves on the Judiciary Committee, said he was "extremely disappointed" in Fauntroy. Others said Mazzoli's vote and Fauntroy's attack influenced the thinking of some southern Democrats.