D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke, frequently mentioned as a probable candidate for mayor in 1990, is beginning to switch some political gears in dealing with issues that may help him along -- or at least make him feel better.

Clarke, first elected chairman in 1982 when he promised to get managerial control of the often-fractious 13-member council, said in an interview this week, "When I die, I don't want them to write on my tombstone, 'He Kept Order in the Council.' "

In a speech to the Woman's National Democratic Club on Monday, Clarke said of his largely organizational job, "I think I have accomplished what I wanted" in making the city legislature run more smoothly. But on issues, Clarke went on to lay out a statistics-laden review of city problems and issues that he wants to help solve.

In the District's limited home rule government, there is only one elective step up from Clarke's job, and that's mayor. Clarke privately has mused that if that option were closed to him, he might run for an at-large seat on the council.

While that would conflict with most political wisdom, Clarke has done the unexpected before. Realistically, however, Clarke's allies and enemies say that it is the mayor's job he wants, nothing less.

That's where issues come in.

While Clarke has been managing the council, he also has generally subordinated his role on issues -- except the annual budget -- to the many council committee chairmen who jealously guard their turf.

Meanwhile, potential rivals such as council member John Ray (D-At Large) have been amassing legislative records on high-profile issues. Ray, particularly, has been at the forefront of major legislation on a wide variety of topics, such as AIDS insurance, revision of the city alcoholic beverage laws and mandatory sentencing laws. The Ray and Clarke rivalry on the council is near legendary.

Clarke's emphasis on the inside workings of running the council may be a solid plank in any campaign for mayor, but it hardly would qualify as something to excite voters.

The speech was the latest indication that Clarke, for personal and political reasons, intends to improve his visibility on issues. Last week, Clarke drew significant attention with two issues: handgun control and shelter for the homeless.

The homeless problem particularly was a satisfying move for Clarke because it both addressed a fundamental issue with him and got him media attention, even though Mayor Marion Barry did a little upstaging by opening the District Building to the homeless for three nights.

Clarke's letter to Maryland and Virginia legislators recommending that they adopt legislation to ban handguns got mixed reviews. Some thought his public appeal to those states would only stir up the National Rifle Association and impede real progress. Others said Clarke's position would be popular at least with District residents. (They're the ones with the votes, remember.)

But even some of Clarke's supporters say that the chairman has strayed too far from his former activist role as a Ward 1 council member before he moved up to chairman.

Clarke disputes such comments, saying, "I never violated my value scheme." He also said his stronger emphasis on issues represents "personal frustration" with the job as chairman rather than any political scheme.

"Even having the Virginia and Maryland people yell back at me -- it was good to be out there on something I like," Clarke said. However, he acknowledges that as chairman he frequently yields to committee chairmen on presenting major issues and sees no major change that would disrupt the flow of the council's business.

Clarke's memory is still fresh -- even if the voters' isn't -- of the troubles his predecessor, Arrington Dixon, had with the council members. Dixon was beset with complaints from the council members that he failed to consult with them and that at times he seemed to suggest that as chairman he should receive automatic support from them.