How quickly Alexandria Republicans have gone from feast to famine. Just three years ago, city Democrats seemed as if they were rushing toward self-destruction and the GOP was waging a rare battle to take over the City Council.

Now, with council elections on the horizon, the Republicans are fighting extinction.

When Alexandria voters elect their mayor and the six members of City Council May 10, all but one of the incumbents on the ballot will be Democrats. Five Democratic council members are seeking new three-year terms, and Democratic Mayor James P. Moran Jr., whose 1984 election launched a remarkable political comeback after he resigned from the council because of a conflict-of-interest conviction, is an early favorite to keep his job.

To make matters worse, the GOP is divided over the political course their sole incumbent should pursue. Council member Carlyle C. (Connie) Ring Jr. has not decided whether he will risk challenging Moran or lead the Republican slate of council contenders.

In a city where voters are predominantly Democratic, and where once-chaotic fighting inside the Democratic Party has settled down, the possibility of a Republican shutout has been raised. "It's going to be a good year," said Alexandria Democratic Chairman Lonnie Rich.

"We have the advantages of incumbency and our candidates running as a united ticket," Rich said. "And I don't know that there's any issue out there that will cut against the current council. The public may not agree with them on everything, but they generally feel this council has been responsible."

Alexandria Republican Vice Chairman W. Michael Holm acknowledged, "It's not going to be easy. But we are going to field some very strong candidates, and it's too early to assess what the voters will be thinking in May."

Added GOP city Chairman Jane Ring, "I think our folks are going to see the situation and get mobilized and energized. This city has always worked better when one party is looking over the other one's shoulder. And I don't think anyone wants to see that change."

Whatever the outcome, the race is already well under way. Although no dominant issue has surfaced, development and a council-approved teen-age health clinic that will dispense contraceptives are likely to be raised.

A large and experienced field of council candidates is quietly jockeying for position in both parties, and both expect competition for a spot on their tickets. Eight candidates, not including incumbents, have thrown their hats into the ring. The Democrats will make their cuts in a primary election March 8, and the Republicans will hold a party canvass, which is similar to a primary, sometime in February or March.

But the decision that will shape the early stages of the campaign -- whether Connie Ring will run for mayor or council -- probably will not be made until next month.

Two weeks ago, Ring sent a letter to his supporters asking for advice. At about the same time, local voters were asked in an anonymous telephone poll how they would vote in a Ring-Moran matchup. Connie and Jane Ring, who are husband and wife, would neither confirm nor deny that the GOP sponsored the poll.

"Some of our supporters say I ought to go for it and that I'm the best person to articulate the issues our party stands for," said Connie Ring, a three-term council member and former School Board chairman. "Others say it's important for us to have a seat on council and that we should not give up a sure seat. It seems to be split right down the middle.

"I think Jim has vulnerabilities. But the question is, can you give people enough reasons to turn out a reasonably popular, good looking, very personable mayor?"

And, Ring might have added, a mayor who has demonstrated considerable political skill. When Moran pleaded no contest to a conflict-of-interest charge and resigned from the City Council in 1984, it seemed that his fast-rising political star had plummeted.

But about that time the city's police chief was accused of misconduct and came under attack from then-Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr., a Democrat and ally of Moran's. The chief was cleared, Beatley's popularity waned and Moran bolted the Democratic Party to run against his old friend as an independent. With the help of Republican votes, Moran won going away.

Since then Moran has returned to the Democratic fold and seems to have solidified his gains. "The mayor is in good shape," said Rich, the Democratic chairman. "He's made some mistakes, but overall he's done a good job."

Moran, displaying his customary confidence, said he would welcome Ring as a sparring partner. "He's by far the most qualified Republican," Moran has said on several occasions. "And I'm at my best when I'm really challenged. I think it would be a good campaign."

One issue that has already divided the two is the City Council's recent decision to build a clinic that will dispense contraceptives near Alexandria's only high school, T.C. Williams. Moran led the clinic effort, and Ring was the only council member to vote against it. A vocal group of clinic opponents plans to field several council candidates and to work against Moran.

But so far it is unclear whether the clinic will be a significant political factor. Ring himself has criticized single-issue voters, and the anticlinic group has little political experience.

"I seriously doubt {the clinic issue} will have any political bite," Jane Ring said. "There are concerns. But the Republican Party is a responsible party. If it's handled responsibly it will go away."

Both sides agree that the strong antidevelopment sentiment expressed last month in elections in neighboring Fairfax County also will be reflected in Alexandria. But both sides also agree that the current council, which has gone to court against developers several times this year, is better positioned politically than were council members in Fairfax.

Democrats took the Fairfax Board of Supervisors back in the fall, converting a 5-to-4 minority position into a 7-to-2 majority.

"Generally, this has been a moderate, controlled-growth council," Rich said. "I think criticism isn't likely to focus on any one person or issue."

Perhaps the worst problem facing the Republicans is an unusally high attrition of candidates during the past two years. Former vice mayor Margaret B. Inman, who might have challenged Moran this time, married and left town. Former School Board chairman Lou Cook, a longtime GOP activist, was upset in a bid to succeed Inman. And three-term council member Robert L. Calhoun announced last month that he is retiring.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have their incumbents and three other contenders with considerable political experience: School Board member Lynnwood Campbell Jr. and party activists Kerry Donley and Rich Leibach. The only Republicans with campaign experience to announce so far are Robert M. Gants, who lost a bid for the House of Delegates this year, and William G. Cleveland, who narrowly missed election to the council in 1985.

"Our slate of candidates this time may not be quite as well known, but they will be high-caliber people," Jane Ring said.

"When our family came here 25 years ago there weren't any Republicans in Alexandria. We've established the fact that people will look at Republican candidates. And we feel like once they look we'll be competitive."