A. Scott Bolden is onstage at Players Lounge in Southeast Washington, face screwed up, eyes squeezed shut, belting out the rhythm-and-blues classic "Thin Line Between Love and Hate." He sings slightly off-key and several beats behind the karaoke machine, but the audience of Ward 8 Democrats is cheerfully clapping along.

"One thing for certain, if we get Scott Bolden for mayor, we'll have a singing mayor!" Ward 8 resident Joyce Scott laughs into the microphone when Bolden is done.

Over by the bar, Bolden sips an iced drink and mops his glistening brow. "Look at me," he says. "You know I'm serious if I'm out here singing at Players Lounge."

Bolden spends every night and all weekend at gatherings like this. Community dinners. Democratic club meetings. Little meet-and-greets. Most people have never heard of the former D.C. Democratic Party chairman, so he's riding the grass-roots circuit. He's been to Ward 8 Karaoke Night at least twice.

With the 2006 election for District mayor more than a year away, Bolden is among a small group of contenders who are running hard, using exploratory committees to raise more than $800,000, throw splashy parties, print glossy brochures, shoot video biographies and otherwise wage what is becoming the longest mayoral campaign on record.

Last week, council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) became the first official candidate, the earliest declaration ever by a major mayoral challenger. But he, Bolden and others have been out there for months in a mad scramble to establish themselves as serious contenders.

"I don't think it's ever been done like this before. We're turning the page on politics and campaigns in D.C.," Bolden said. "We are pushing to expand the political pie to see if we can get a piece of it."

In years past, mayoral contests have typically simmered along quietly until six months, nine months, one year out. If they existed at all, exploratory committees operated behind the scenes, collecting just enough cash to pay for a poll to test the waters.

This year, the lack of an announcement by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) about his political future has raised hopes among some relatively youthful insiders who have never run citywide. In their haste to build name recognition and establish a political base, they have turned the once-secretive exploratory process into a very public contest for dollars and endorsements.

Campaign Accounts Growing

It is difficult to say whether that strategy is working. Fenty, Bolden and council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who may yet form an exploratory committee, have conducted polls, but none has released the results. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) conducted a mail-in/Internet survey, but it did not measure the strength of his opponents.

Fenty said he has raised the most money: $300,000, compared with $200,000 apiece for Bolden and Orange, and $100,000 for lobbyist Michael A. Brown. But those figures cannot be verified because Bolden and Brown have declined to make their donations public, and Fenty and Orange have released only partial lists. (Under D.C. law, exploratory committees are not required to report their activities.)

Fenty is the only candidate to attract public endorsements from activists who were once part of Williams's power base. And he is the only candidate to draw sustained fire from Williams, who has flatly derided the young populist, now serving his second council term, as "not . . . the best person to run this city."

Some in the business community are so rattled by Fenty's new prominence that they are casting about for other options should both Williams and council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) decide to pass up the race.

John W. Hill, chief executive of the Federal City Council and executive director of the federally appointed financial control board from 1995 to 1999, has been mentioned as a possibility. In an interview, Hill said, "I am absolutely flattered, but I have no intention of running."

Former U.S. attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. and former Verizon executive Marie C. Johns are toying with the idea. But until Williams and Cropp make a decision, the city's financial backers and powerbrokers are, for the most part, sitting back, waiting for the field to shake out.

That leaves Bolden, Brown and Orange working the streets, hoping lightning strikes.

If Williams and Cropp decide not to run, "it becomes a wide-open race," said Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO. "Anything can happen. It's still early. Front-runners can suddenly tumble and fall on their face."

He recalled the petition scandal of 2002, when the mayor failed to qualify for the Democratic primary ballot and had to wage a write-in campaign. "One person said to me if he had been in the race three years ago when the mayor made his boo-boo, he might be mayor today," Williams said. "I think those contenders are probably thinking just the same."

Polishing Their Images

The undeclared candidates are going to great lengths to attract attention. Orange has hosted three free parties, including a $20,000 breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. He has mailed an eight-page brochure, featuring more than four dozen photos of himself partying with various community leaders, to 90,000 D.C. households. And he mailed 500 DVDs that tell his life story, complete with baby pictures and a script describing him as "a man on a mission."

During the last week in May, Orange held a fundraiser in Stockton, Calif., which he said was attended by 40 or 50 college buddies from the University of the Pacific. He held another exploratory event Thursday in Colorado Springs, where his high school class gathered for its 30th reunion.

Brown, too, has hosted free parties and is planning a golf tournament next month. He has also scheduled a series of out-of-town fundraisers to tap friends of his father, the late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, spokesman Andre Johnson said.

"His father really helped a lot of people get where they are today. Democrats across the nation are aware of the effort that Michael is making and are willing to help out any way they can," Johnson said.

Asked about the early start, Brown said it was essential to set up phone banks, raise money and compete with the incumbents. "We've had four mayors and only one has come from the city council," he said, referring to Marion Barry. "But as nonpolitical professionals, we have a further road to walk than the professional politicians do."

Brown, meanwhile, has spent considerable time and money cultivating activists east of the Anacostia River. This spring, for instance, he laid out $300 for the karaoke setup at Players Lounge for one of the Ward 8 Democrats' fundraisers, according to Phil Pannell, a Brown supporter and longtime Ward 8 activist.

But Bolden is widely recognized as the hardest-working man on the pre-campaign trail. He has shot a video biography that will start playing on public-access cable later this month. He has purchased time on WOL radio for a weekly call-in show, "What Matters Most." He publishes a newsletter via e-mail. And he travels in a borrowed Buick Rendezvous -- with big signs on the doors that say "Bolden 2006 Exploratory Committee" -- to every community meeting and political gathering in town.

One night in late April, Bolden hit four events in four hours, starting with a voting rights symposium at Metropolitan AME Church downtown.

"Hi, Scott. You're just everywhere. You're the campaigningest person I ever saw," Ward 6 activist Marilyn Killingham calls from her wheelchair when she sees him.

A short while later, Bolden is in Southeast. Wearing his double-breasted K Street suit, he stands in a dingy basement community room at the Park Naylor Apartments, talking to 16 people. "I'm thinking about running for mayor in 2006," he tells them, his voice rising to compete with the rattling air conditioner and the ancient, throbbing icebox. "If I decide to run, or when I decide to run, I want you to remember me. That I touched you. And I want you to tell 10 friends."

Later still, Bolden sings at Players Lounge, then hurries back downtown for a business dinner. Many expect him to drop out of the hunt for mayor and switch to another race, perhaps challenging council member Phil Mendelson (D) for his at-large seat. Bolden won't rule out that possibility and seems to recognize that the mayor's race would be a very long slog.

"I just want 80 percent name recognition. That's what I want," he says as the Buick cruises through downtown traffic. He quickly dismisses that desire as a joke, then starts to laugh at his own optimism.

In January, A. Scott Bolden went to the Showcase of Schools to spread the word that he was considering a mayoral run. Here, he cozies up with Taleyah Evans, daughter of his communications director, Michelle Phipps-Evans, at left.