John Ray's top political adviser said yesterday that rival Sharon Pratt Dixon had gained momentum after her performance in three televised debates and major newspaper endorsements, but that Ray would maintain his front-runner position going into Tuesday's D.C. Democratic mayoral primary.

George T. Mitchell, Ray's campaign manager, said recent debates on three D.C. television stations, combined with two editorial endorsements in The Washington Post last week, had given Dixon "some momentum, some surge in the polls."

"Certainly, the momentum is picking up for her," Mitchell said.

Lesley Israel, of Politics Inc., Ray's Washington-based media consultant, concurred with Mitchell's view, saying that Dixon has "done a good job at the debates."

However, both Israel and Mitchell contended that any momentum Dixon may enjoy will not be enough to overcome the commanding lead Ray has held in published polls and in a voter survey that his own campaign conducted days before the Post endorsement.

"It is probably too little, too late," Israel said. Mitchell added: "It's our race. Our base is solid."

David E. Byrd, who is managing the Dixon campaign and overseeing the distribution of more than 100,000 copies of the Post endorsement throughout the city, described Ray yesterday as the "consensus" front-runner by virtue of the record $1.1 million that the at-large D.C. Council member has raised for his third mayoral bid.

However, Byrd contended that Dixon, a lawyer and former utility company executive, would be able to overtake Ray and her several other opponents by Tuesday. "The race is very tight, despite what the polls say," Byrd said. "John is the front-runner based not on his appeal, but what he has in terms of money."

Having exhausted virtually all the money they raised for the most expensive primary campaign in D.C. history, the Democratic candidates are now moving into the most critical phase of the race, a time for energizing their own political bases and reaching out to traditional party regulars such as labor households and senior citizens.

In large measure, the last-minute strategies and field organizations have been designed with one goal in mind: to catch Ray, who recently summed up his own plan this way: "What we have to do now is hold what we have."

Some rivals who were vastly outspent by Ray during the summer are trying to maximize their dollars through nuts-and-bolts voter contact. For instance, Council Chairman David A. Clarke is relying in part on his telephone bank, which he said yesterday had placed 15,000 calls to District residents.

Dixon, a Democratic national committeewoman who has portrayed herself as a political outsider, launched one wave of 50,000 copies of the Post endorsement and is poised to distribute 50,000 more by the weekend, she said yesterday.

Charlene Drew Jarvis, who trails only Ray in raising funds, was able to mount a modest effort this week on commercial television, including ads assailing Ray for accepting many large contributions from real estate developers, as well as his stance on possible new taxes.

Jarvis said yesterday her principal goal in the coming days was to "really let people see the real differences between Mr. Ray the candidate -- who you do not know -- and the kind of mayor he might make."

Later, at a forum, Jarvis denounced Ray as a "Republican in Democratic garb" and labeled him a "villain" for accepting significant contributions from real estate developers. Ray did not attend the forum sponsored by New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Northwest.

Meanwhile, Walter E. Fauntroy, who in many respects has maintained a low profile during the campaign, filmed a commercial yesterday that his aides plan to air on cable television, at a cost of about $5,000.

Like all five Democrats, Fauntroy, the D.C. delegate to Congress, is focusing in the waning days of the mayoral campaign on senior citizens, large numbers of whom can be reached by single visits to large apartment complexes around the District. Yesterday, Fauntroy met with members of the Carver Terrace Tenants & Civic Association in a crowded room in Northeast Washington.

Association leaders said they would meet late Friday to decide which candidate to support and spend the weekend getting the word out to the more than 7,000 members of their organization.

In recent days, Fauntroy has abandoned his sharp attacks against Ray. Robert L. Johnson, Fauntroy's campaign manager, said Ray could benefit this week if none of the other candidates is able to score a direct hit against the front-runner.

"We did it early on, and we had our head handed to us by the press," Johnson said. "The other candidates should be tearing Ray to pieces. You never beat a guy in the lead by letting him sit on his lead."

Spokesmen for some of the Democratic candidates said yesterday they believed that polling data collected before the televised debates and Post endorsement of Dixon was almost certainly obsolete by now.

A Washington Post poll published late last month found Ray supported by 33 percent of the voters, Jarvis with 17 percent support, Dixon and Fauntroy tied at 10 percent and Clarke with 9 percent.

Sources familiar with survey data compiled for the Ray campaign last week said his poll showed him with 34 percent support, Clarke and Jarvis tied at 12 percent, Dixon with 9 percent and Fauntroy with 5 percent.

Both surveys found a high percentage of voters still undecided about the Democratic primary -- 21 percent in the Post poll and 28 percent in the Ray survey, which was conducted by the national polling firm of Mellman & Lazarus Inc.

Staff writer Molly Sinclair contributed to this report.