What has always amazed Bill Robinson about Ed Norton was numbers. Norton had this thing for numbers. He could remember dates, hours, even birth dates of Robinson's own children. He could do "brilliant" mathematical analyses of problems "right there off the top of his head."

"Look," said Robinson, dean of the District of Columbia School of Law and a friend since their days together at Columbia University Law School, "filling out some damn tax form is like child's play for him. The guy's really, really smart and able. There just has to be some other explanation."

Another explanation, that is, for what has happened to Edward Norton and his wife, Eleanor, in the midst of her campaign to become the next D.C. delegate to Congress. It is Edward Norton who says he failed to file the couple's D.C. income tax forms for the past seven years.

And while Eleanor Holmes Norton's friends and associates have spoken disparagingly of her husband in private, his colleagues say that the filing failure is totally at variance with the Edward Norton they have known, a Columbia-educated lawyer they describe as brilliant, engaging, responsible.

"Ed is one of the most decent, likable people I have ever worked with," said S. Leigh Curry, who, along with Norton, was a deputy general counsel at the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the 1970s. "He did his job well and was universally well-liked."

While his wife's supporters blame him for innumerable sins, Edward Norton's friends and former professional associates praise him as an unusually pleasant and affable fellow.

Washington public relations executive Arthur J. Schultz III, a close friend of Edward Norton, said he "is absolutely one of the most brilliant, engaging and funny people I know."

His wife's campaign workers hold Edward Norton responsible for failing to pay overtime to a domestic employee several years ago, sparking an embarrassing lawsuit. But Edward Norton's friends and others say he is a good manager with splendid organization skills.

Walter E. Warren, who succeeded Edward Norton as general counsel of the Small Business Administration when the Reagan administration took charge in 1981, said he saw nothing in Norton's management style that would have indicated an inattention to vital financial matters. Warren said he found that Norton was widely liked among staff members.

Edward Norton, his wife and his law partner Tersh Boasberg declined to be interviewed for this story.

Three days before the primary election last month, it was disclosed that the Nortons had not filed their D.C. income tax returns since 1982. Eleanor Norton announced at once that she was not aware of their failure to file, saying that her husband was responsible for the family's taxes and that he had assured her that their financial affairs were in order.

Edward Norton called a news conference, urging District voters to blame him, not his wife, for the tax problems. She won the Democratic nomination.

In the ensuing weeks, sources close to Eleanor Norton have suggested that she and her husband are waging a private war over their personal finances. They said Eleanor Norton has moved to sever her financial accounts from those of her husband after the tax disclosure. Edward Norton's insistence on personal privacy was the only reason the Norton campaign has not made fuller disclosures of their financial information, including copies of their federal and District returns, they said.

The Norton campaign organization, however, has declined to explain some of the information it has released, including a statement of income that apparently shows Edward Norton had virtually no net earnings last year.

The flow sheet released by the campaign showed $317,750 in total income for the couple, about $10,000 less than Eleanor Norton's total 1989 earnings itemized on the financial disclosure statement she filed with the House clerk's office as part of her delegate candidacy.

Campaign officials have said only that the discrepancy reflects losses incurred by Edward Norton.

For the years 1982 through 1988, the flow sheet shows the couple earned more than $200,000 once, in 1988, and that for previous years the joint earnings were generally in the range of $120,000 to $140,000.

At the heart of the tax problem, Eleanor Norton's supporters contend, is her husband's difficulty in dealing with a super-successful spouse while his legal career has apparently topped out. The tax problems were deliberately hidden, her supporters say, perhaps as a way of sabotaging a campaign that he quietly opposed.

But Edward Norton's friends say nothing could be further from the truth. Edward Norton did not want his wife to run for public office, they acknowledge, but he did not try to damage her chances by attempting to cover up the tax problems, they say.

"Ed and Eleanor have been so supportive of each other in such an incredible array of circumstances that there is no question that he would not consciously or subconsciously subvert her," said Robinson. "It is precisely for that reason that he's going through utter torture right now."

Edward Norton grew up in New York City, the son of a letter carrier who pushed his two sons to excel, engaging them in public affairs discussions and reading from Shakespeare as the dinner dishes were being cleared. The prodding worked, Schultz said. Edward Norton graduated from Yale University and Columbia University School of Law.

After law school, Edward Norton worked in New York and in 1973, he became general counsel for the city's housing authority. In 1977, President Carter named Eleanor Norton to head the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Edward Norton became deputy general counsel at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1979, Edward Norton was appointed general counsel at the Small Business Administration.

After he left the government, he established a law firm with Boasberg, a specialist in historic preservation law, and Thomas A. Coughlin III, a real estate taxation expert. Several years ago, Matthew S. Watson, a former D.C. auditor, joined the firm.

In addition, Edward Norton was appointed chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics by Mayor Marion Barry in 1983. In the six years he served as chairman, the city's elections board administered an overhaul of the voter rolls and implemented an automatic purging system for inactive voters. Politicians inside and outside the District government have given Norton high marks for improvements in the system.

If there is anything offbeat that Edward Norton is known for, his friends say, it is his decision not to learn how to drive. Norton has never driven a car, and must tell store clerks when cashing checks that he does not have a driver's license.

"He's from New York, where it's not practical to have a car, and he just decided when he moved down here that he wouldn't learn," Robinson said. "He kind of wears his lack of a license as a badge of pride."

Staff writer Steve Twomey contributed to this report.