With less than two months before D.C. Democrats select their mayoral nominee, the five major candidates in the primary election sharpened their attacks against one another last night, especially on issues of rent control and campaign contributions from developers.

Several of the candidates, appearing in the first televised forum of the mayoral campaign, had harsh words for the administration of D.C. schools, while all five said they hope to renew the spirit of a city deflated by the drug arrest and trial of Mayor Marion Barry.

In some of the liveliest exchanges of the debate, sponsored by the Capital City chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and broadcast live on WHMM-TV (Channel 32), John Ray was forced to defend the many large campaign contributions he has received from area developers and his 1985 vote in favor of legislation that would have weakened the city's rent control law.

Ray, an at-large member of the D.C. Council who leads his rivals in fund-raising and published polls, said he is "not worried" about the charge, voiced most strongly by rivals Walter E. Fauntroy and Charlene Drew Jarvis, that he had received an unusual number of large contributions from real estate interests.

Fauntroy, the District's nonvoting delegate to Congress, accused Ray of making deals with "outside developers and Beltway bandits," while Jarvis, a council member from Ward 4, said the developer contributions to Ray amounted to "a loan that has to be paid back" through favorable treatment.

Ray responded by pointing out that all of the Democratic candidates had accepted contributions from developers, and that his were in a "smaller percentage" than the others in the contest.

Ray also said he had a strong record on tenant issues, despite the 1985 vote that he, along with Jarvis and five other council members, cast in favor of legislation designed to gradually phase out rent control in certain apartment buildings. Fauntroy and D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke, who also is running in the primary, opposed the measure at the time.

Ray also dismissed the criticism by Jarvis, Fauntroy and Clarke as unnecessarily negative and a sign his rivals were becoming "desperate."

There were no major gaffes in the 90-minute debate, and all five candidates presented variations of the themes they have been honing in recent weeks during similar forums and stump speeches around Washington. However, last night's debate sometimes took on a highly personal tone missing from the candidates' previous encounters.

Clarke hammered away at the rent control issue, needling Jarvis and Ray for the 1985 vote and even holding up before the studio camera a copy of a sample ballot the two had signed in opposition to a referendum later that year that overturned the council action phasing out rent control.

Clarke, the only white candidate, did not shy away when asked whether he was troubled by running in a majority-black city that many believe is polarized along racial lines.

"I do not have pause, because I am who I am. My skin is white -- that's not going to change," Clarke said. "I see some racial polarization, but I see an ability on my part to deal with it . . . . I represented the area where the riots occurred, and we came together in Ward 1."

Sharon Pratt Dixon, a local lawyer who has never held elective office, cast herself as an outsider to the District's recent political past, saying that despite her own relatively low standing in most polls, "This is a wide open race. The voters of this city are not viewing this as a politics-as-usual kind of election."

Fauntroy, who has tended to avoid confrontations with his fellow Democrats, seemed determined to try to put Ray and Jarvis on the defensive, particularly on rent control. He accused both of "having repudiated an action they took in 1985," and at one point described Jarvis as courting "backroom deals and back-room buddies."

Jarvis, meanwhile, sought to distance herself from Ray on the rent control vote, while simultaneously asserting that the primary election would come down to a contest between herself and Ray.

"Mr. Ray is the one to beat tonight," Jarvis said.

Compared with the other four, Ray maintained a decidedly low-keyed demeanor throughout the forum, except when he briefly flashed a look of annoyance at Jarvis during a sharp exchange about rent control.

"Mrs. Jarvis has not authored {or} cosponsored one tenant bill to help any tenant until this election year," Ray said icily. "I have sponsored and authored more tenant legislation than any other member on the city council."

The five Democrats split on the issue of taxes, with Dixon, Fauntroy and Jarvis issuing firm pledges not to seek tax increases if they are elected.

Clarke and Ray, however, said that while there were a number of steps they would take before a tax increase to reduce the city's deficit, they were unwilling to rule out such an increase.

The candidates spoke with similar voices about the need for black and white District residents to pull together as a city once Barry's trial is over and a new mayor is elected as his successor. Barry, who is on trial in U.S. District Court on 14 drug-related charges, announced last month that he would not seek a fourth term.

Dixon, the only candidate to have called for Barry's resignation, criticized her four opponents for not doing the same. She said that as part of the city's Democratic establishment, they were too busy "walking through the raindrops" in an effort to avoid angering the mayor.

Clarke, Jarvis and Ray also strongly criticized the D.C. Board of Education's oversight of schools. Ray said there is too much "waste" in the public school system, and Jarvis complained that "many too many school board members are much too much involved in politics."

Clarke questioned the board's priorities, saying that for every $3 spent on teaching youngsters, $2 is spent on administrative costs.