Democrats Eleanor Holmes Norton and Betty Ann Kane escalated their war of rhetoric yesterday in the campaign for D.C. delegate, with Kane criticizing Norton's failure to vote in four of the past 10 elections and Norton questioning Kane's commitment to rent control and D.C. statehood.

The criticisms flew during the first head-to-head debate of the campaign between Kane, an at-large member of the D.C. Council, and Norton, a Georgetown University law professor.

Eight others are seeking the nonvoting delegate's seat, but Norton and Kane were the only two candidates who asked to address the forum, according to officials of the sponsoring group, the 18th and Columbia Rd. Business Association.

Kane took the offensive, trying to portray Norton as an outsider who has shown little interest in local civic affairs until she announced her candidacy for delegate in May.

After Norton told the gathering that she pressed House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) last week for help in defending the D.C. budget from congressional attack, as a sign of her concern, Kane quipped that she "didn't wait until Thursday to talk to Congress about our budget."

Kane later renewed her attack on Norton for failing to vote in several elections, including the presidential and D.C. Council primaries in May and September 1988.

"I have voted in every election since I have registered to vote," Kane said. "This is a very clear distinction between me and my opponent.

"I don't think this is negative information," Kane added, anticipating one of Norton's defenses. She said her supporters have suggested that "maybe Mrs. Norton is just practicing to be a nonvoting delegate."

Norton, chief of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Carter administration, acknowledged that there were occasions when she missed elections because she was out of town on business as a lawyer.

Norton said her missed votes are not a fair reflection of her commitment to public service, noting that she was "in the streets . . . in Mississippi, fighting for the 1965 Voting Rights Act."

Norton accused her opponent of raising the voting issue as a way of "distracting voters" from Kane's record as a council member, which Norton described as inimical to rent control and D.C. statehood.

She cited Kane's support of 1985 legislation that would have phased out rent control in some apartments, as well as her opposition, until that year, of legislation establishing shadow senator positions to lobby for statehood.

"You have some votes to explain," Norton told Kane. "You're living in an area full of rental {housing}, and you not only voted against rent control, but you campaigned against the intitiative that overturned your vote."

Norton was referring to a 1985 referendum that overturned council-approved legislation to phase out rent control.

Yesterday's exchanges underscored what has become a bitter rivalry between Kane and Norton, who lead the rest of the Democratic field in fund-raising and endorsements.

During the past few weeks, Norton has picked up the backing of the D.C. Nurses Association, the Washington Teachers Union and D.C. Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8).

Kane, meanwhile, has received endorsements from the political action committee for local doctors, the union for the school system's clerical workers, former Barry fund-raiser Max N. Berry and former Army secretary Clifford Alexander.

Kane said yesterday that, if she succeeds Walter E. Fauntroy as delegate, she would concentrate on local issues, such as pressing for a regional tax earmarked for paying for road construction and other transportation costs.

Kane said voters ought to ask of Norton, "When did you start participating in the life of the city?"

Norton said Kane was attempting to define public service too narrowly. The proper question for voters, she said, is: "Who can do the most" for D.C. residents?

Noting her extensive ties to members of Congress and involvement in national issues such as civil rights and equal employment, Norton said, "We need a delegate who can command respect for the people of the District."