Mayoral candidate Charlene Drew Jarvis derided political rival Sharon Pratt Dixon yesterday as a "little Miss Muffet who sat on her tuffet," while Dixon accused Jarvis and other members of the D.C. Council of maintaining weak control over District government.

D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke, who is competing against Dixon, Jarvis and two other Democrats for the party's mayoral nomination, also criticized Dixon as a latecomer to elective politics, saying she was unwilling to work herway "up through the bottom and build a record."

The exchange among the three candidates came at the end of an hourlong mayoral forum before 120 people at Trinity Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington, 16 days before the primary election to select the Democratic mayoral nominee.

Two other candidates in the Democratic race, D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy and at-large council member John Ray, did not attend. Neither did former D.C. police chief Maurice T. Turner Jr., who is unopposed for the Republican mayoral nomination.

Alvin C. Frost, who has no challengers for the mayoral nomination of the D.C. Statehood Party, did participate.

Dixon, who arrived five minutes before the end of the event, has tried throughout the campaign to depict Clarke, Jarvis and Ray as "three blind mice" who she contends ignored mounting problems in the city.

Yesterday, in the few moments she had to speak, Dixon sounded that theme again. "These folks on the city council, they had the authority to set the budget, they had the authority to approve or disapprove all political appointments and they have had the authority to exercise oversight over all the major {council} committees.

"Yet they said nothing and saw nothing and did nothing for all these years," Dixon said.

Jarvis, rising quickly to her feet, responded: "I've been to many, many of these forums and I've heard the little blind mice analogy very, very often, but I've really got to ask: You know, this is little Miss Muffet who sat on her tuffet while the rest of us were working away.

"It is very difficult to take on the responsibility of government when there are populations of people so greatly in need in this city," Jarvis said.

Clarke also replied to Dixon's attack, saying he had hoped "that this being Sunday morning and at a church, {the forum} might take a different tone."

Dixon, said Clarke, was unfamiliar with the council's work because she never attended any of its hearings, which Clarke said number 1,800 over the past several years.

"We looked at every issue that Mrs. Dixon has raised here today," Clarke said. "And Sharon, over all this time, you might have known that, had you showed up at one of the hearings.

"There are some folks who are willing to come from the top and stay at the top," added Clarke, a 16-year veteran of the council, "and there's other folks who are willing to work their way up through the bottom and build a record that can be taken apart by others -- but can be stood on in the future as well."

Many audience members at the Takoma church, which is in Jarvis's Ward 4, reacted enthusiastically to Dixon's remarks. But some said later they believed the mayor's office has primary responsibility for making government run efficiently.

"The real problem is on the executive side of government, not on the council side," said Wayland McClellan, a retired U.S. government lawyer in his sixties.

McClellan said he agreed with Dixon's complaint that there are too many employees on the D.C. government payroll. "The first order of business for the new mayor is to clean house," he said. McClellan said he was leaning toward voting for Jarvis, in part because he has known her and her family for years.