In recent weeks, D.C. Council member Betty Ann Kane hasn't missed an opportunity to criticize Eleanor Holmes Norton, one of her principal rivals in the Democratic race for D.C. delegate.

She accused Norton of standing on the sidelines during the congressional battle over D.C. voting rights. She said Norton failed to back up gay-rights activists at Georgetown University, where she teaches. And she berated Norton for not voting in five of the past 13 local elections.

Despite her lofty national reputation, Kane contends, Norton has "done nothing" of substance on numerous issues of interest to District residents.

Norton, a civil rights activist and Georgetown law professor, has fought back, charging that Kane has distorted her record and citing what she describes as Kane's record of opposition to tenants' rights, D.C. statehood and other issues dear to local progressives.

"The question is, where have you stood on the council?" Norton said. "Kane's political philosophy is not in keeping with the majority of the people of the District of Columbia."

The verbal jousting between Kane and Norton has highlighted what has become a close and increasingly bitter campaign to succeed Democrat Walter E. Fauntroy as the District's nonvoting House delegate.

"It is starting to get downright nasty and mean," said Jim Champagne, a Republican candidate for the delegate's post who has appeared frequently with Norton and Kane at forums throughout the city.

Kane, an at-large council member who has won eight city-wide elections, entered the race shortly after Fauntroy announced he was a candidate for mayor. She gained several important endorsements -- including that of the Greater Washington Board of Trade -- and appeared headed for front-runner's status.

Since then, six other Democrats have jumped into the campaign, including former D.C. Council chairman Sterling Tucker and former Barry administration official Joseph P. Yeldell.

But many local political activists say Norton -- who gained a national reputation as chief of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Carter administration -- is best positioned to break into Kane's base, especially in the largely white areas of Ward 3 in Northwest and in parts of Ward 6 around Capitol Hill.

Norton, a Washington native, has demonstrated strong appeal among black and white voters, largely by virtue of her 25 years as a civil rights activist and ties to Democrats in Congress. Norton said that, if elected, she will use those ties to help gain D.C. statehood, increase federal funding for the District and gain other city objectives.

"We need someone with a big, broad perspective," said Paul M. Washington, a Ward 5 political activist. "Norton has both the negotiating skills and the legal skills to do what's required on Capitol Hill."

According to activists, Norton has two major problems -- one strategic, the other substantive. One problem, they say, is the large number of prominent blacks, like Tucker and Yeldell, who have entered the race and threaten to divide the black vote, possibly enabling Kane to capture the Sept. 11 Democratic primary with a plurality.

This possibility has generated speculation within the political community that Tucker, Yeldell or both might withdraw before the election if they conclude they can't win.

Tucker and Yeldell both have said that they will remain in the race until the end, but Yeldell has hinted that he would consider pulling out if he saw that he was not gaining momentum.

"At some point, this field may narrow," said one politically active labor leader. "I think Eleanor could beat the hell out of Kane one-on-one."

Norton's other liability, according to political observers, is her lack of local political experience and unfamiliarity with some local issues.

For example, Norton had to concede she was mistaken when she stated that she could persuade Congress to grant her a vote on the House floor -- something Fauntroy has lacked -- after she was elected delegate. She backed down after opponents pointed out that this was impossible short of a constitutional amendment or D.C. statehood.

Norton has begun to assemble what many consider an effective organization. But she has received a tepid response from some key activists who express concern that she has yet to "pay her dues" on a local level.

"Norton is perceived as having a potentially good presence in Congress, but is weak in terms of having a track record in the District," said James A. Parks, a Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member active in politics.

"People are concerned that when important issues were before the city, Norton wasn't there to take a position," said Parks, who is undecided in the delegate's race.

Kane has worked assiduously to tap such sentiment, mostly by depicting Norton as an outsider who has been uninterested and uninvolved in local affairs. Kane has portrayed herself as a veteran politician with a strong record of constituent service.

At a recent forum in the Chevy Chase neighborhood in Northwest, Kane questioned why Norton had not urged President Carter to lobby more forcefully for passage of a constitutional amendment granting the District full voting rights in Congress in the late 1970s.

Kane also sent a letter to members of the District's gay community, accusing Norton of having failed to side with gay students at Georgetown in their battle with administrators over compliance with the city's human rights law.

"I have been there, and people have been able to count on me," Kane said. "{Norton} is someone who has not been there . . . . People need to know the facts. I can't stand it when people don't tell the truth."

Norton accuses Kane of misfiring. On the Georgetown gay issue, Norton said that she and other members of the university law faculty lobbied the administration to compromise with gay students seeking recognition.

On the question of statehood for the District, Norton said that she and other black members of the Carter administration repeatedly spoke in favor of D.C. self-determination.

As for Kane's charge that she missed voting in some elections, Norton said she may have missed some votes because of her campaigning around the country on behalf of the Democratic presidential ticket in 1984 and 1988.

"She has no idea what I've done," Norton said of Kane. "The last thing this polarized city needs right now is a negative campaign. It is not my style. Kane has been shooting blanks ever since I got in this race. It is clear they are a cover for her voting record."

In picking up the endorsement recently of a major city tenants organization, Norton noted Kane's 1985 vote in favor of a bill that would have phased out rent control as evidence of an "anti-tenant" record. She also criticized Kane's past efforts to postpone elections for the "shadow" senators and representative to lobby for D.C. statehood.

"She has got to come to liberal voters with a basically anti-liberal record," Norton said.