The six Democratic candidates for D.C. delegate agreed yesterday on their top goals, including statehood and some type of commuter tax, but disagreed on tactics and took verbal potshots at each other's qualifications.

"We're not too far apart on a good many issues," said Sterling Tucker, a former D.C. Council chairman. "In the final analysis, it is not a question of whether we're going to have a competent person in there, but who can best get the job done."

In a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters, the candidates offered views on many subjects, from U.S. troop deployment in the Persian Gulf to the impact of race on the campaign to the rivals' backgrounds and experience.

Sparks flew as law professor Eleanor Holmes Norton and D.C. Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) were criticized by others: Kane for allegedly giving only lukewarm support for D.C. statehood, and Norton for not voting in four of the last 12 local primary elections.

Donald M. Temple, a former congressional aide, chastised Kane for not mentioning statehood in her campaign literature and for not supporting funding for the shadow senators and representative who will be elected this fall to lobby for statehood on Capitol Hill. "This shows again she is not serious about statehood," he said.

Tucker, a business consultant and former civil rights activist, told Norton that her repeated failure to vote was "disturbing" because it signals "your lack of involvement" in city politics and affairs.

Norton, a onetime federal equal employment administrator who has been dogged on the campaign trail by questions about her voting record, said she had been "called out of town unexpectedly" on business during several of those elections and didn't arrange to cast an absentee ballot.

Citing her involvement in the civil rights movement dating to the early 1960s, Norton said, "I would not put voting in every election at the top of the list of qualifications" to become the District's next nonvoting delegate.

Joining Norton, Kane, Temple and Tucker were Barbara Lett Simmons, a management consultant and former school board member, and Joseph P. Yeldell, a former Barry administration official. They are vying for the seat being vacated after 19 years by Walter E. Fauntroy, who is running for mayor.

On the subject of a commuter tax, the candidates expressed some differences of opinion. In adopting the home rule charter, Congress prohibited the city from imposing an income tax on residents of neighboring jurisdictions who work in the District.

Each of the candidates said the city should somehow be compensated for the huge numbers of commuters who work in the District, drive on city streets and use other services.

Tucker proposed an increase in the federal payment in lieu of a commuter tax -- a solution supported by Kane and Simmons.

Yeldell disagreed, saying that to "back off" and seek a larger federal payment "adds to the colonial nature of the relationship."

Rather than push for a tax or a payment in lieu of it, Temple said that if elected he would push for more federal money for local streets and highways. The commuter tax, he said, will not be a real option until the District becomes a state.

"The fairness of a reciprocal tax, it seems to me, cannot be argued," Norton said. "I think that it is one of the strongest arguments for statehood."

The six reiterated their support for D.C. statehood, although they disagreed on how quickly it could be achieved and whether it should become the paramount issue of the next delegate.

There are other issues for the delegate to work on "while we're waiting for the millennia, as it were," Norton said. She listed, as did the other candidates, improved relations with Congress, budgetary autonomy for the District, winning support for a fixed formula for federal payments to the District and control over the criminal justice system.

Yeldell said he would make the statehood fight his top priority because "that's what the voters have said that they wanted."

Yeldell said city officials should not postpone pushing for statehood because of the District's negative image on Capitol Hill, which stems from Mayor Marion Barry's legal and political problems and the city's high homicide rate.

"I think that we pursue statehood as a right," he said. "It has nothing to do with whether we're good boys or good girls."

But Kane said she would move slowly on the issue, and not immediately approach members of Congress and say, "Hi, I'm Betty Ann Kane. Here's my statehood legislation . . . . I would start building that process of informing, that process of educating, that process of personal relationships."

Trust, she said, "has got to precede any legislation."

Temple disagreed with the slow approach, saying, "To me it is very clear that what we have to do in this next session of Congress is indeed prioritize statehood as a moral and constitutional question and concern."

Simmons predicted statehood could be achieved in four years, as the logical outcome of the progress on the federal payment and the appropriations process.

Asked about the impact of race on the campaign, four of the six Democrats said they did not believe race should play a role. Simmons and Tucker said it is not a question of whether it should be a factor in the election, it just is.

"To deny that there is race tells me that we are just refusing to deal with reality," Simmons said.

"If we're going to begin healing this city, we ought to begin with telling the truth," Tucker said.

Commenting on what he perceives as a gender gap in the campaign, with two of the women -- Norton and Kane -- receiving most of the attention and campaign contributions, Tucker said that "it's a handicap in this race" to be a man.

"There are those who are trying to structure this as a women's race and narrow it down to a two-woman race and then to a black and white woman's race," Tucker said.

Kane is white and Norton is black.

The candidates all said that, based on what they know about the Persian Gulf crisis, they support President Bush's massive deployment of U.S. troops. Some noted the irony that some of the military personnel being sent to possibly fight the Iraqis are from a jurisdiction whose representative in Congress does not have the right to vote.

In response to a question about his involvement in a criminal case in the late 1970s, Yeldell angrily replied that he had been acquitted of the charges and that the issue was irrelevant.

Yeldell, who was defeated by Fauntroy in the first delegate election 19 years ago, was convicted by a federal jury in 1978 on charges of bribery and conspiracy along with local parking magnate Dominic F. Antonelli Jr., but the next year, after a retrial in Philadelphia, a federal jury acquitted both men.

Asked how voters should respond, Yeldell said: "This is America. There's a system of justice. I was found innocent and I don't know why it's an issue . . . . There is no problem with Joe Yeldell and his obligation to carry out the public trust."

During a discussion of congressional relations with the District, Kane was asked whether she approved of a practice of unions representing D.C. firefighters and police to go over the heads of D.C. officials and take their cases directly to sympathetic members of Congress. Both of those unions have endorsed Kane in the delegate's race.

"No, I do not and I have told them every single time that they have done that," Kane said. "I have pulled them in and spoken to them and said I will not support you going to Congress."

Norton, a Georgetown University law professor and former chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, described the upcoming election as a "watershed" in District politics and a time when the city "can gather respect it has lost on the Hill."

Temple, a lawyer and a former congressional aide, said voters have become disenchanted with the District's political leadership and are looking for a change. "They're tired of the same old suit and the same old cliches dominating the city's leadership and bottlenecking change," he said.

"Unlike my contemporaries and my opponents," he said, "I don't believe the role of the government is to help the people. The role of the government is to help the people help themselves."

Yeldell, former director of the old Department of Human Resources and the Office of Emergency Preparedness, said, "I do not run to be a super mayor or super city council," but instead would work closely as a "consummate team player" with other top D.C. officials to carry out the city's legislative agenda.

Yeldell stressed his government work dating to the mid-1960s to claim that he is the most experienced and best-qualified candidate in the race.

Kane said she was running for delegate "to restore respect, to restore credibility to our city" in the eyes of Congress.

Citing her 16 years as a school board and council member, Kane said, "I believe it is critical to the nature of this job that we have someone in this position who understands the city, who understands the history of the laws of the city, who is intimately familiar with the budget."

Simmons, a former at-large school board member, said she has championed causes in the District for 28 years -- from environmental concerns to the needs of children and the elderly -- and that she would be best qualified to serve as the District's chief advocate in Congress.

Simmons contends that many of the District's problems on Capitol Hill stem from ignorance among senators and House members of the unique nature of the city or faulty information published by The Washington Post. If elected, Simmons said she would invite her congressional colleagues to attend social and cultural activities in the District so they could gain a greater appreciation of the city's needs.

"I would go to Congress to have the opportunity to let my colleagues rise to the highest level of their humanity and indeed do the right thing" in their treatment of the District, she said.

Tucker, a former D.C. Council chairman and former executive director of the Washington Urban League, said he would work to reverse a trend in Congress toward overturning or challenging District-passed laws.

"In recent years they've gotten into a substantive review, usurping our authority," he said.

"We've got to get back to restoring {the previous} relationship" in which Congress would review D.C. legislation to determine whether it was properly adopted, but not question the substance of the legislation.