John Ray used the first major televised debate in the campaign for the D.C. Democratic mayoral nomination last night to shift his position on possible new taxes, while remaining composed in the face of spirited attacks by Charlene Drew Jarvis and three other rivals.

In a free-wheeling and sometimes disorganized exchange 13 days before the party's crucial primary election, Ray issued a firm statement against new taxes, a position that contrasted with his earlier contention that some new taxes might be necessary to help ease the city's current fiscal crisis.

"We can't raise taxes in this city, people are taxed too much already," said Ray, an at-large member of the D.C. Council making his third bid for mayor.

Meanwhile, Jarvis, who was in second place behind Ray in a poll published this week by The Washington Post, sought to use the hour-long debate on WUSA-TV (Channel 9) to cast the contest as a two-person race with Ray to succeed Mayor Marion Barry.

"I am in second place, breathing very hard on Mr. Ray," Jarvis said in her closing statement. "I'm coming very fast, so Mr. Ray, you need to move, move over."

For Ray, Jarvis and the other candidates in the race -- D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke and lawyer Sharon Pratt Dixon -- the live broadcast offered a potential bonanza in free publicity at a time when many District voters are just beginning to focus on the primary election.

Dixon won the editorial endorsement of The Washington Post in today's editions of the newspaper. The editorial said Dixon was "in the best position to make the necessary difference" because she was "clear of the responsibility for the erosion at city hall."

Several of the Democrats had said they hoped to ruffle Ray during the debate, which had an open-ended format allowing the participants to speak almost at will, but Ray remained unflappable.

Clarke, Fauntroy and Jarvis criticized Ray in succession for a 1985 council vote for the gradual phase-out of rent control, an issue that has emerged this year to dominate much of the primary campaign.

Jarvis, the Ward 4 council member, was perhaps the most spirited critic of Ray, and repeatedly criticized his record on rent control and tenant rights and his acceptance of many large contributions from real estate developers -- themes that Fauntroy first aired forcefully during the campaign.

Dixon, for her part, criticized the four elected officials for their role in local government during a time she said was marked by a deterioration in city services.

"Lightning isn't going to strike on Inaugural Day and suddenly bless these folks with a new sense of character and resolve," Dixon said in the final minutes of the debate.

Fauntroy, who has said at various points in the campaign that he is not widely known by voters despite his 19 years as delegate, made several references to his time in Congress, saying it prepared him well for service as mayor.

"I've done it before and I can do it again," said Fauntroy, adding later: "I can be of more help to the citizens of the District of Columbia as mayor."

Clarke, who like Fauntroy is relinquishing his current office to run for mayor, stressed his Washington roots, reminding viewers of his education at Howard University and role in the civil rights movement, as well as his staunch opposition to the rent control phase-out that Jarvis and Ray supported five years ago.

Ray and Clarke complained afterwards that the debate lacked focus and organization. "It tended to reward loudness," Clarke said. "I would have liked to have gotten to some of the issues, but we didn't get to that. It got to charges about who has the most money."

The debate opened with Fauntroy and Dixon seeking to place the three council members on the defensive, saying they were responsible for the District's deteriorating condition.

"I've done my job on Capitol Hill," Fauntroy told Ray, Clarke and Jarvis. "The question is what have you done" about rising drug-driven violence and the city's high infant mortality rate.

Dixon, a former utility company vice president, wasted no time in raising her favorite campaign theme: the city's "bloated bureaucracy" and declining city services.

"People are ready to clean house," she said. "Most of them say don't use a broom, use a shovel."

On the subject of Barry, Clarke said that during his tenure as chairman, the council served to provide a "constructive tension" with the mayor, raising questions about the mayor's contracting practices and blocking Barry's efforts to raise taxes.

Ray took a shot at his opponents, saying that most of them "got in the race to run against the mayor" and have "no vision" for where they want to take the city.

Asked whether she had sought Barry's endorsement, Jarvis said she had only sought the support of the mayor's grass-roots organization. Quickly changing the subject, Jarvis questioned Ray about his campaign contributions from real estate executives and liquor dealers.

"I really am the people's candidate," she said, describing herself as a supporter of rent control. "Mr. Ray, on the other hand, is the one who carries the agenda of the special interests."

Ray, appearing more relaxed than he did in a previous televised debate, dismissed Jarvis by saying, "When you're doing well . . . remarks are always hurled in your direction."

Ray sharply criticized Jarvis's record on tenants rights and alcohol and beverage control, saying that she has sponsored little legislation of note. "Mrs. Jarvis's record couldn't compare to mine," he said.

Fauntroy repeatedly returned to a theme that the council members were largely to blame for "mismanaging" the city, while comparing his work in Congress on behalf of the city to that of a star lineman for the Washington Redskins.

"Here I am clearing holes in the line on Capitol Hill . . . and they're fumbling the ball . . . in the backfield," he said. "I'm saying, give me the ball now."

Dixon said there has been too much "backroom politics" in the District, while Clarke shifted the subject to rent control, attacking Jarvis and Ray.

Clarke said there was no difference between Jarvis and Ray on the issue, noting that both supported a proposal in 1985 for the gradual phase-out of rent control in certain buildings. The bill was approved by the council, and parts of it were overturned later that year in a citywide referendum.

"Both of them together went hand in hand," Clarke said. "Now they say they support rent control. What will they say next year?"

Jarvis accused Clarke of "misleading the public," and said the thing to keep in mind was that developers are funneling "hundreds of thousands" of dollars to Ray's campaign.

On the subject of the city's finances, Dixon repeated her pledge to cut the city's bureaucracy and said that after doing so she would be in a position to go to Capitol Hill and persuade Congress to give the city an additional $100 million to $200 million in federal payment in lieu of taxes. The basic federal payment is currently $430 million a year, about 15 percent of the budget.

Jarvis also said she would reduce the size of the government at the managerial level, while Fauntroy said he was the only candidate to come up with a plan for solving the city's financial mess, one that focuses on austerity and obtaining increased federal support.

"I say no taxes," Fauntroy said. "It will just drive more middle-income people out of the city and business out of the city."Staff writer Stephen Buckley contributed to this report.