Hey, we might have a mayoral race after all.With the trial of Mayor Barry ended and speculation about his political plans quelled, I was eager to apply a tourniquet to the wounds of the past and focus on the largely unnoticed candidates vying to lead us into D.C.'s next political era.

Driving to a mayoral candidate forum sponsored by Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority Wednesday night, I thought of just a few of the challenges that will face the next mayor: a fiscal crisis, high taxes, severe housing problems, a bloated bureaucracy, rampant illegal drug trafficking, increasing homicides, a staggering high school dropout rate and inadequate health care for the city's poorest.

The five Democratic contenders on hand attacked and jabbed with such feistiness that I ended the evening confident that even without a great charismatic figure in the pack, the campaign has finally begun.

Stepping up to the microphone early on, Del. Walter E. Fauntroy waved his 26-page plan for "Solving Our Budget and Management Crisis and Platform for Addressing Our Social and Economic Problems." It contained his solutions to problems ranging from the need to increase job opportunities for black men to halting "the hemorrhage of middle-income people from the city due to a lack of low- and moderate-income housing."

D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke stepped in with a quick jab. He rejected what he called the basis of Fauntroy's plan -- a tax on nonresident income earned in the District. He vowed instead to take boards off city-owned houses, maintain rent control and forge links with big-time developers to make the city more affordable for working-class people.

Council member John Ray's offer to return contributions to his campaign from developers -- a promise on which he later reneged -- prompted the harshest attacks by his opponents. Of his estimated $900,000 campaign war chest, Ray has collected an estimated 34 percent from developers and real estate interests.

"If Mr. Ray gives back the 34 percent," said Fauntroy, "I will give back the 9 percent from developers who have invested in my campaign, because we are not going to heal the pain and polarization in this community until developers are in partnership with this community to build affordable housing."

Clarke said that he too was ready to return campaign contributions from developers, quipping to Ray, "You're going to be writing a big, fat check!"

Lawyer Sharon Pratt Dixon struck responsive chords with her attacks on the Barry administration's record in education, her positions on selling surplus schools ("I'm not going to give away school property") and her stance on downtown development ("I don't believe we can continue this dynamic of playing Santa Claus to {developers} Oliver Carr and Jeffrey Cohen"). Earlier in the day, she had unveiled a proposal that she said would bring "the benefits of people-focused capitalism and economic development uptown to the city's most neglected and distressed neighborhoods."

To a question from the audience on how they would address the city's disgracefully high infant mortality rate, the candidates gave almost interchangeable answers: increased community health facilities, more education and removal of the D.C. health department from the Department of Human Services. No one offered a convincing proposal to pay for the solutions.

Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, a late arrival at the forum, promised to help restore moral authority to the city, civility and efficiency to its bureaucracy and good management to the District's resources without raising taxes.

The lively, black, middle-class crowd attending this forum seemed more concerned with local community development and economic and social issues than with big money and downtown development.

The candidates will be showcased at numerous other forums as they press doggedly toward the Sept. 11 Democratic primary. John Ray already seems to be the big winner among downtown developers. But other endorsements and distinctions may emerge, someone else may break from the pack, someone may even drop out.

In the meantime, let the campaigning continue. I'm ready for it, now, and I'm certain I'm not alone.