The Democratic primary campaign to succeed Walter E. Fauntroy as the District's delegate to Congress has turned into a feisty referendum on Eleanor Holmes Norton and whether she can use her credentials as a national civil rights leader to restore the city's tarnished image on Capitol Hill.

Aided by a $270,000 war chest that far outstrips those of her rivals, Norton has surged to a sizable lead in public opinion polls, and has begun airing television and radio commercials aimed at blunting any last-minute thrusts by the other Democratic contenders before Tuesday's primary.

While their tactics are different, the strategies of her rivals -- D.C. Council member Betty Ann Kane, Donald M. Temple, Sterling Tucker and Joseph P. Yeldell -- share a common theme: portraying Norton as an interloper who was uninterested in District affairs until she started running for Congress four months ago.

Red meat for most of them was the disclosure early on in the campaign that Norton did not vote in four of the last 10 elections in the District of Columbia. When Norton explained that she was out of town on legal business, her opponents asked why she did not obtain an absentee ballot from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.

Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), who was the first to hammer away at Norton, said her failure to go to the polls "renders her incredibly ineffective as an advocate for the right of D.C. citizens to vote."

"National reputations aren't going to do a damned thing to solve the problems of the city," added Yeldell, a former Barry administration official. "Eleanor has been kind of aloof from the people of the city."

Norton, a Georgetown University law professor and former chief of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has bristled at such criticism, echoed repeatedly by her rivals during candidate forums and interviews throughout the campaign.

She points to a list of District civic associations in which she participates, including the Community Foundation of Greater Washington and the Committee on Public Education, the citizen group that recommended changes in the city school system.

"My opponents have to capitalize on what they have, which is usually paid elected service in this city," Norton said in an interview yesterday. "They have to deprecate my strong point, because none of them have it, which is a record of achievement at the federal level."

She said of the persistent attacks, "It hasn't resonated."

One reason that the campaign has focused on Norton's credentials, other than her front-runner status, is that the Democratic candidates aren't far apart on the major issues. Each supports statehood, an increased federal payment to support the city's operations and greater autonomy for the District government.

Some of those positions contrast sharply with those of the three Republicans seeking their party's nomination Tuesday: lawyer Harry M. Singleton, consultant Jim Champagne and contractor Roffle Mayes Miller Jr. They either oppose statehood or don't believe it should be a priority.

Although every bit as feisty, the Republican race is more unsettled than the Democratic campaign. There are roughly 26,000 Republicans in Washington, about one-ninth the number of registered Democratic voters, and only a fraction of those are expected to vote in the primary.

Singleton, a former chief of civil rights at the Education Department, has been endorsed by the D.C. Republican Committee, the ruling arm of the local party, and is leading his rivals in fund-raising with $33,742. Champagne is also known in local political circles, having waged unsuccessful campaigns for mayor and D.C. Council, and has displayed a caustic wit at candidate forums.

Miller, a political newcomer in Washington, has devoted much of his energy to bashing Fauntroy, Mayor Marion Barry and the rest of the city's Democratic establishment.

According to a Washington Post survey of Democratic voters published last week, Norton is supported by 31 percent of the electorate, followed by Tucker with 19 percent, Kane with 15 percent, Yeldell with 8 percent, Temple with 4 percent, and 19 percent undecided. Former school board member Barbara Lett Simmons, who was supported by 4 percent of those polled, has since dropped out and thrown her support to Norton.

Despite her lead, Norton's rivals say the issue is far from finished, given the undecided vote. They also point out that the electorate and the media, which spent most of the summer obsessed with the mayor's race and Barry's drug trial, is only starting to focus on the delegate's post.

"We're going to win because it is time for a change," said Temple, 37, a community activist and former congressional lawyer who has waged an aggressive door-to-door campaign oriented on generational issues.

Tucker, the former D.C. Council chairman and city anti-drug czar, is hoping for a boost from his considerable citywide name recognition. A former assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Tucker argues that he is the only candidate with a combination of local and federal experience needed to do the job.

Kane has waged a vigorous direct-mail campaign, plastering 150,000 Democratic households with a Kane newspaper and more targeted mailings emphasizing her familiarity with the budget and other local issues and a dependable record of constituent service.

Yeldell is trying to capitalize on his extensive ties with D.C. workers whom he came to know during his nearly 30-year career in government. "They know that I've been with them over the years," he said.