The nation's capital has taken a giant step toward getting its first woman mayor. In a city that is 80 percent Democratic, Sharon Pratt Dixon's victory in Tuesday's Democratic primary gives her a definite advantage in the November general election.

A victory would make her the first black woman mayor of a major urban center. And it would also represent a major breakthrough in the way District voters view women politicians.

What caused Washingtonians to break with tradition? It wasn't only Marion Barry's drug and sex scandals. During the 12 years that he has served as mayor, Barry has come to personify the political rut that so many black leaders, especially men out of the civil rights movement, have fallen into.

Florence Tate, an adviser to Dixon, said the election results were not so much a reflection of anti-male sentiments as they were a pro-women expression. Dixon, she adds, was simply an outstanding person -- who happened to be a woman.

"Women everywhere in the city recognized that Sharon is a quality person," she said. "You could feel good about supporting her not just because she was a woman, but because the superior candidate was a woman."

Although Tate opted for diplomacy in her comments about the "quality" of male candidates for mayor, the fact is that men of the city, with few exceptions, sank to a disappointing low in class and intellect -- to say nothing about their dearth of leadership during the turmoil leading up to the election.

While the women candidates for mayor, Dixon and D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, were articulate and often brilliant, the men were lackluster, boring and frequently confused.

The failure to prophesy with moral clarity was particularly acute among the men of the religious community, tainting leaders of the District's most viable institution: the church. For those preachers who put personality above principle, voters resoundingly rejected their political endorsements.

The Rev. Willie Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast showed the poorest judgment of all by quitting as Dixon's co-campaign chairman to sign on with at-large council member John Ray -- after it was reported that Ray was leading in campaign contributions.

Even the venerable Bishop H.H. Brookins of the African Methodist Episcopal Church appeared lost in the storm -- supporting Barry, until he learned that the mayor and Hazel Diane "Rasheeda" Moore had smoked crack in his home.

Like Wilson, Brookins signed on with Ray, who by then was leading in the polls.

Not easily forgotten was Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, dodging cars and inhaling exhaust fumes as he passed out campaign literature at an auto inspection station in Northeast.

It was a hopeless sight, but nothing compares with what the remaining male candidates for mayor are up to now. Statehood contender Alvin C. Frost continues thinking up political rap songs that may get him a laugh, if not a vote, at the next televised debate.

And Maurice T. Turner Jr., former police chief and Republican nominee for mayor, appears to have completely misread the political landscape, behaving as if he can cash in on the outdated notion of women as the "weaker sex."

"She's crying for social change," Turner said in his attack on Dixon last week. "She's soft on crime . . . . "

In one televised debate, when asked how he would accomplish his goals, Turner used the word "force" four times -- including forcing teachers to teach and forcing students to stay in school.

But while Turner pledges to "arrest, convict and send to prison" even more criminals, the Dixon camp easily undercuts what some are calling a "black Frank Rizzo strategy," noting that the District's incarceration rate already is second only to South Africa's.

For her part, Dixon continues to emphasize economic development and better educational opportunities. She inspires voters with plans to bring aspects of the film and entertainment industry to Washington and with ideas about creating black catering companies.

Says Tate, "She has staked out the avant-garde of the District's political process."

Says Turner, "She talks about compassion and doing something socially -- you have to do those things, but you have to have a strong and forceful effort out there."

Turner has emerged as the District's political equivalent of Sonny Liston -- a strong and forceful slugger. But the question is: Can he beat someone who floats like a butterfly and stings like a shovel?