The race for D.C. mayor, long overshadowed by the political and legal drama of Mayor Marion Barry, finally takes center stage this week as voters choose between two largely untested candidates to guide the nation's capital through its most severe fiscal crisis of modern times.

Recent voter surveys suggest that Sharon Pratt Dixon, who scored an upset victory in the Democratic Party's mayoral primary, enjoys a comfortable lead over Republican rival Maurice T. Turner Jr., although most observers expect Turner to fare better in Tuesday's balloting than he has in the polls.

In the race for D.C. delegate to Congress, Democratic candidate Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose public image was badly bruised by her failure to file city income taxes for eight years, is leading Republican nominee Harry M. Singleton, according to recent surveys.

Meanwhile, Barry, a three-term incumbent who has acknowledged drug addiction and faces six months in prison for cocaine possession, is fighting to salvage his political reputation in a close race for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council.

Candidates by the dozen took advantage of yesterday's glorious Indian summer weather to stage rallies, knock on doors and hold fund-raisers for last-minute advertising. One enterprising candidate, D.C. Council hopeful Suzanne Finney of Ward 3, patched a dozen potholes with a load of asphalt she purchased after checking with the city Public Works Department.

"People are appreciative," said Finney, an independent. "They say it's about time somebody did it."

Barry, whose saga this year transfixed but further alienated key portions of the District's political establishment, has in many ways been a defining element in the race for mayor. A critic of Dixon's, he nonetheless served as her foil during the primary election season, when she based her campaign on a pledge to "clean house" in city government.

Conversely, Turner has been forced repeatedly during the general election campaign to answer questions about his knowledge of Barry's illegal drug use.

A career police officer who was chief for eight years before retiring in 1989, Turner said he confronted Barry about the widespread allegations that the mayor was using drugs, and believed him when he said he was not.

Turner also has blamed Barry for not providing the police department with the resources he said it needed to contain the record-setting homicide rate in his final years as chief.

Some political activists said they question whether Washington voters would simultaneously elevate a "clean house" candidate such as Dixon to the mayor's office and send Barry to another, albeit lesser, public post after the revelations at his drug trial and his subsequent prison sentence by U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson.

"Remember, this is the first election the mayor has had to face since the Ramada Inn episode and the Vista arrest," said Kevin Chavous, a Ward 7 activist and member of the Democratic State Committee who opposes Barry's council bid. "He has taken some pretty mortal blows."

Chavous and other observers said that while many District residents, particularly black voters, have an affection for Barry that transcends his personal and legal troubles, large numbers may be unwilling to join what the mayor has described as his "crusade" for a council seat.

A poll commissioned by WJLA-TV (Channel 7) and released last week indicated that Barry has kept his base of hard-core support largely intact: 27 percent of the 600 likely voters surveyed said they supported his council candidacy.

However, the same poll showed Barry trailing his two chief rivals, incumbent Hilda H.M. Mason of the D.C. Statehood Party and Linda W. Cropp, the Democratic nominee. Mason led the eight-person field with 42 percent, and Cropp, a school board member, was second, with 38 percent, according to the WJLA poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Barry said yesterday at a campaign stop at Seventh and Emerson streets NW in Ward 4 that he was trailing Mason and Cropp, but added, "We're catching up."

The mayor said he has no second thoughts about his decision to run for the council. "That's what I want to do," he said. "The people want us to do it too, so I feel fantastic."

Voters may cast their ballots for two candidates in the race for the two at-large seats; the top two vote-getters win, meaning that Barry could finish second and capture one of the $71,885-a-year seats.

Because the race for mayor was to some extent obscured by attention to Barry, some analysts believe the problems confronting his successor -- a growing budget deficit, strained relations with Congress and intense demands for public services -- were not as fully aired as they might have been.

Furthermore, the kinds of campaigns that Turner and Dixon ran did not allow for issues to be fully ventilated, political observers said. A key element of Turner's strategy was to make Dixon -- particularly her sex and her comparative wealth -- a major issue, while Dixon concentrated on her main theme of firing 2,000 city government workers.

"I don't think the issues have been fashioned in such a way as to result in a mandate, regardless of the {winning} percentage," said Alvin Thornton, a political scientist at Howard University.

"Short of cutting the payroll, I don't know what the mandate for Sharon Dixon is," Thornton added. "Voters don't know her. She will not hit the ground with a solid consensus, a solid set of issues with which to govern. Her challenge is to build a governing consensus."

At various stages of the campaign, Dixon promised voters she would accomplish some goals within fairly short time periods. For example, she said a combination of recreation programs and increased police foot patrols would reduce the homicide rate within six months. She also vowed to fire 2,000 mid-level managers in her first year in office and have the boards off more than 2,000 abandoned public housing units by July 1992.

Yesterday, campaigning in the Edgewood community of Ward 5 with Norton and Cropp, Dixon promised to bring improved city programs to the drug-torn area "within months" of taking office.

She also said the campaign against Turner had not fully aired issues such as education, housing and health, especially when compared with the debate during the summer Democratic primary campaign.

"In the general election campaign, it hasn't been as much focused on these areas," she said.

Turner said the main issue in the race has been experience -- his years in the D.C. police department against Dixon's tenure as an executive of Potomac Electric Power Co.

"I've been a supervisor or chief executive officer these last eight years," Turner said while campaigning along H Street NE. "Ms. Dixon has never managed any more than 15 or 20 people, never put a budget together, is not familiar with the District personnel manual."

Meanwhile, in the delegate's race, Singleton blamed Norton for revelations that he had smoked marijuana, saying he was "shocked by this new low to which she has sunk in an effort to revive her sinking campaign."

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Singleton acknowledged in a 1984 deposition that he had occasionally used marijuana, including during a period in which he held high-level posts on Capitol Hill and in the Reagan administration.

The Post discovered the deposition while examining records of Singleton's divorce case after a former aide to Singleton, as well as a Norton campaign official, suggested there had been problems in his personal life. Though Singleton referred to "dredging up sealed court documents," the divorce files are open to the public.

Norton said yesterday she had known nothing about Singleton's case.

Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Steve Twomey contributed to this report.