With strong support from labor, D.C. Council member Harry L. Thomas Sr. (D-Ward 5) appears to be running ahead of his challengers, although criticism of his first term in office is common and neighborhood activists disagree over how safe his lead is.

Ward 5 council races traditionally have attracted a large field of contestants, which has splintered the vote and often rewarded the incumbent with a narrow victory. Former council member William Spaulding won the first three Democratic primaries since home rule, with University of the District of Columbia professor Robert "Bob" Artisst close on his heels.

Artisst, who is making his fifth run for the council seat, is widely viewed as Thomas's strongest competitor.

"We've had four years of no leadership," said Artisst, 57, who has a long record of community service in the ward, but whose personality, according to some observers, has rubbed some people the wrong way.

Thomas, 67, a retired U.S. Department of the Interior employee, brushes off the criticism and defends his lack of a distinguished legislative record by explaining that as a freshman council member, he was not able to head a committee.

"That's where the power is," he said. "That's where the money is divvied up." He has urged voters to send him back for another four-year term so he can "get in the real power struggle. With seniority, I'll have some leverage."

Former D.C. employee Kathryn Pearson-West, 33, and lawyer Tony Norman, 31, also are seeking the Democratic nomination. Four independents -- Russell Jones Jr., Isadore Mizell, P.W. Powell and Virgil Thompson -- are circulating petitions to appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. There is no Republican opposition.

The candidates, reflecting the concerns of ward residents, have discussed at length the proliferation of drugs and crime, and the need for economic development and more job opportunities.

But beyond those major issues, unifying themes are hard to find because there are so many pockets of diverse interests.

Ward 5, which is the city's second-largest in terms of land, is populated by middle-class homeowners, young upwardly mobile professionals, retirees, people on public assistance and drug users.

The ward stretches from McMillan Reservoir on the west to Catholic University and Brookland, and out Rhode Island Avenue to Brentwood, Langdon and the Maryland line on the east.

It has decades-old stability in Queens Chapel and Michigan Park, and transition in Bloomingdale and Gateway. There is despair about drugs and crime in Carver Terrace and hope of renewal in Ivy City.

In all parts of the ward, there are those who offer accounts of Thomas's efforts to please.

"People go to sleep at night knowing that Harry is out there living dangerously," said Bob King, who heads the Fort Lincoln Civic Association. "He's out there at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning, all over the ward, trying to do something about crime . . . . When somebody's dead, he goes and investigates . . . . Every major drug rally, he's involved."

Not many dispute Thomas's zealous constituent service record. However, some of the ward's politically active residents describe him as a very nice guy who doesn't have the ability to lead and properly serve the ward's varied interests. Some also say he lacks a strong staff.

He angered some Jewish leaders and residents throughout the city by sponsoring a resolution in the D.C. Council that honored the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, for anti-drug work in local housing projects. But he won the respect of many in his ward by not backing down in the face of pressure from those offended by the measure.

Thomas also has been praised by some activists for staunchly opposing the council's decision to restrict assistance to the homeless, which was guaranteed under Initiative 17.

"Harry's been a good listener, but in terms of carving out solutions, he's not had that type of initiative," said Matthew Shannon, a lawyer and former D.C. official who strongly supported Thomas in his first campaign, but is reluctant to jump on his bandwagon this time.

"He hasn't done anything," said his rival, Norman, who has been active in development and zoning disputes. "He's been a puppet, a part of the {D.C. Del. Walter E.} Fauntroy machine and also the Barry machine."

"I know he goes to every meeting, but I kind of equate that to a social life, going to every party," said another rival, Pearson-West, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who has run unsuccessfully for the school board. "I know he has a good heart, but I don't really see him doing anything."

Some say Thomas has been powerless to prevent the city from locating what they call a disproportionate share of homeless shelters within the ward. And while residents of the ward, which has a large amount of undeveloped commercial land, welcome economic growth, some do not trust Thomas to deliver it in a planned and balanced manner.

According to some of his biggest backers, however, Thomas has done well in his first term. Joslyn N. Williams, leader of the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO, said, "He has been very responsive to issues affecting working men and women in this city . . . . He has worked hard to protect the job security of District employees . . . . Whenever they have called him, he has been there."

The union group, which endorsed Thomas early in the race, is raising funds for him, providing him with volunteers, helping him hang posters and urging members of the 10,000 "union households" in the ward to vote for him.

None of Thomas's Democratic competitors has been able to raise much money, and all are having trouble getting their messages across. However, Shannon seemingly typifies the feelings of many in the ward when he says of Thomas, "I don't think he should be automatically anointed for a second term."