The subject was D.C. General Hospital. The forum was a debate among D.C. Council candidates. The question posed to Eugene Dewitt Kinlow was: How does he defend his father's decision to close the hospital in Southeast last year?

This was tricky territory for Kinlow, who hopes to win one of two at-large seats up for grabs in Tuesday's election. Kinlow, who lives in Bellevue in Ward 8, uses the campaign slogan, "Making every neighborhood great." He wants to turn the election into a referendum on ensuring representation for people who live in poorer neighborhoods.

But Kinlow's father had been on the D.C. financial control board when it ordered the closing of the troubled hospital that served poor and uninsured city residents.

"Ah, the sins of the father come back to haunt the son," Kinlow said. "Yes, my father was on the control board, but let me tell you the real reason D.C. General closed. It was because of a lack of oversight from the council."

Ridiculous, argued the man sitting to Kinlow's left, at-large Council member David A. Catania. Noting that he fought to keep the hospital open, Catania added for good measure: "When I was not successful in stopping his father's effort, I sued the mayor and control board!"

With just days left before the election, this race might be the most intriguing one in the city.

Although Kinlow would be content to unseat the other incumbent at-large member, Democrat Phil Mendelson, he has set his sights squarely on Catania. Figuring that Catania, a white Republican, was vulnerable, Kinlow, who is black and is a longtime Democrat, chose to bypass a crowded Democratic primary and run as an independent.

But what Kinlow discovered at that candidate debate is something Washington's electorate has been learning for four years: While Catania might not be an ideal candidate on paper in a predominantly black, overwhelmingly Democratic city, he has a way of jumping on issues that appeal to a cross section of voters and winning their support with his aggressive, well-informed activism.

Catania "has formidable political skills," said Ron Lester, a Democratic pollster. "When Catania first ran, a lot of people said he couldn't win, that a Republican cannot win citywide. But he found a way. The real challenge for Kinlow is to effectively reach voters . . . to make sure voters know who he is."

Kinlow is convinced that the time is right to change the face of the council. If he were to win, he would become the only one of the four at-large council members to live east of the Anacostia River. And he would give the 13-member council its seventh African American, restoring the black majority that had reigned since the first council elections in 1974 until 1998, when white candidates defeated two longtime black members.

"Now is the time for more balanced geographic representation," Kinlow said. "I do not see anyone speaking on the issues I believe in strongly." Alluding to Catania's political affiliation, Kinlow added: "Party matters. Democrats are inherently better for this city, and I'm a Democrat. . . . I'm going to push the message: Democrats should not vote for a Republican."

Catania's supporters practically guffaw when they hear this, pointing out that Kinlow is running as an independent.

"Look what Kinlow had to do just to get on the ballot: Sell his soul to the devil," said Sam Bost, a black Democrat who lives in Ward 7 but supports Catania.

Kinlow, 40, contends that "the goal is not to run, but to win."

"Some people who said early on that if I'm a Democrat, I should run as a Democrat now say I made a smart move." he said.

Catania, 34, who is known for his exhaustive research and willingness to lecture unprepared city officials with a haughty indignation, cringes when asked about his Republican membership. Neither his campaign posters nor his business cards mention his party affiliation.

"I hate labels," said Catania, who nevertheless usually has another label attached to him because he is one of two gay council members.

"People try to apply 20th-century labels to 21st-century situations," he said. "What I do transcends parties. I approach issues and work on them if I believe they will improve the quality of life for residents."

Kinlow acknowledges that he faces an uphill battle. Catania, a lawyer with ties to the wealthy legal and development communities, says he has raised nearly $400,000 for the campaign, while Kinlow says he has about $70,000.

But Kinlow's community roots run deep. He graduated from Ballou High School and the University of the District of Columbia, where he now serves on the Board of Trustees. His two children attend D.C. public schools, and his wife, Tonya, was a member of the school board from 1998 to 2001.

"I'm not an attorney. I'm an activist. My community credentials are tried and tested," said Kinlow, who fought against plans to put a trash transfer station, a prison and a homeless shelter in Ward 8, arguing that his community should instead get a grocery store and increased business development.

Some voters say Kinlow is being hypocritical when he talks about wanting more representation for poorer communities. During a recent campaign stop at Brightwood Elementary School in Ward 4, Kinlow boasted that he had raised money for his children's schools. A teacher in the audience immediately asked him to specify which schools, knowing full well that Kinlow's children attend high-achieving schools in Ward 3.

Catania lives in Dupont Circle in Ward 2, but he has worked to establish connections across the city. He has scored points for helping block the trash transfer station in Ward 8 and stopping a housing development that was to have been built on a site in Ward 7 called unsafe swampland.

"He has not governed as a Republican," Ronald Walters, a professor of politics at the University of Maryland, said of Catania. "He is not identified with a hard-right label."

Catania has received criticism that he is, to use Kinlow's term, a "bully," who browbeats public officials. Quick to spout a fountain of statistics, Catania has verbally dressed down aides to Mayor Anthony A. Williams and aggressively challenged the projections of Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi. Catania said he is simply trying to restore public trust in a government that has a reputation for waste and inefficiency.

"I'm the first to admit that at times I'm extremely impatient," Catania said. "But I'm not apologetic about being a forceful voice. Maybe I am too skeptical at times, but when people provide me with indefensible information, then they've got a problem."

Renee McCoy-Collins, a black Democrat from Crestwood who supports Catania, said he "is tenacious. . . . When he has all the statistics and others don't, then they feel intimidated."

Some pollsters said Kinlow has been hurt because he has not received an endorsement from Williams. Also, they say, the intense media focus on the sniper shootings has hurt challengers by tamping down media coverage of the election races.

Martha Harris talks about some of the problems she faces as a D.C. teacher at a council candidate forum.