The five contenders for the D.C. Democratic mayoral nomination took their campaigns to more than a dozen churches across Washington yesterday, as party leaders predicted a photo-finish in tomorrow's primary election.
"The race is too close to call," said Joslyn N. Williams, the city Democratic chairman who hosted one of the last in a summer-long series of mayoral candidates forums.
Candidates David A. Clarke, Sharon Pratt Dixon and Walter E. Fauntroy traded verbal barbs for an hour at the forum in Northeast Washington, while Charlene DrewJarvis and John Ray skipped the event, preferring to use the time to campaign in other parts of the District.
Ray, whose lead in published polls has been dented by strong challenges by Dixon and Jarvis, said in an interview that he was confident of victory in tomorrow's balloting.
Polling places in the city's 140 precincts open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.
"No one else has a citywide organization," Ray said during a stop at Dupont Circle in Northwest. "All we have to do now is keep the troops geared up, to hold what we have and influence the undecideds."
Ray said his own polling data suggests he is getting a share of the undecideds as those voters settle on their choices, as many as four out of every 10 of those votes in some parts of the city.
However, the other candidates said they too stand to benefit in an atmosphere so unsettled on the eve of the election.
"My sense is that the people, even at this moment, are undecided and that support for candidates is still soft," said Clarke, who has mounted an elaborate telephone bank operation to identify his supporters and persuade others to go with him.
"We think it's very doable," Clarke said of his prospects. "We will do it."
Dawn Alexander, press secretary of the Jarvis campaign, said most of the undecided Democratic voters in Washington are black women, which should help her candidate.
"Jarvis's increasing prominence in the media, as a result of closing the gap between her candidacy and John Ray's is leaving women with a positive perception that a woman can win this race," Alexander said. "As a woman is perceived as a winner, gender recedes as an issue."
The same could apply to Dixon, whose campaign appeared to surge last week after editorial endorsements by The Washington Post. Dixon campaign manager David E. Byrd said yesterday that she is within striking distance of overtaking Ray, in part because many undecided voters are shifting her way.
"He can't solidify his base," Byrd said of Ray. "He's catchable. He's beatable."
Williams, the party chairman, said that while Dixon is perceived as having momentum, she might not have enough time to capitalize on the Post endorsement.
Ray, added Williams, "has run a campaign devoid of serious errors. He devised a plan and stuck to that plan, going after the voters, rather than his opponents."
Byrd said the lateness of the hour could work to Dixon's advantage. "You want to be viewed as having the momentum going in to the last days," Byrd said. "You don't want a week for it to die down."
Fauntroy, who has been trailing in most polls, said his campaign was "spinning like a top."
"I'm very optimistic," Fauntroy said. "People are going to be surprised when I win this by a narrow margin."
D.C. Del. Fauntroy may have set a record yesterday for the number of appearances in churches on a pre-election Sunday, at least eight in his case, including one stop that was scheduled to last only five minutes.
Council Chairman Clarke, by contrast, attended just one church -- Vermont Avenue Baptist -- in the belief that "churches don't like it when you rush in and go right back out."
Dixon, a local lawyer, stopped by two churches in Northeast Washington.
Ward 4 council member Jarvis visited two in Northwest, and at-large council member Ray appeared at three, two in Southeast and one in Northwest.
All five Democrats plan to continue what has been a grueling pace of campaigning right through primary day, although Sunday was as Williams put it, "the final big day for the candidates to reach their public."
The party chief said the tenor of the Democratic primary was at times too negative and personal, but that he understood why.
"The prize has been so great this time, since the incumbent mayor is not running again," he said.
Fox Television (Channel 5) is scheduled to hold this morning what could be the final debate of the campaign, a forum featuring the five Democrats from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.