D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp said yesterday that she does not expect Mayor Anthony A. Williams to seek a third term and that she is "leaning strongly" toward running to replace him in 2006.

"It looks as if it's a strong possibility," Cropp (D) told reporters and editors over lunch at The Washington Post. "Right now, I am talking to the citizens, and my announcement is geared for September. And at this point, it looks fairly strong that I would run."

Cropp, a 25-year veteran of D.C. politics who has also served on the school board, would be a formidable candidate, political analysts said. Polls conducted for other campaigns show she is popular among D.C. residents and respected by local business leaders. She also is the only candidate in a field of five expected challengers who has previously won a citywide election.

For months, Williams (D) has rebuffed questions about his political future. He did so again yesterday, raising his eyebrows when told that Cropp expects him to move on.

"I think it's too soon to start the campaign," Williams said. "I'll make an announcement in the fall."

Williams spokesman Vince Morris said that Cropp met with the mayor a few weeks ago to talk about the race but that he gave her no "guidance . . . about whether he will run." Yesterday, Cropp would not characterize their meeting. But when asked whether she expects to campaign against the incumbent, Cropp said: "Like many others, I don't expect him to run. But I don't know."

That is a growing consensus in political circles across town. With three challengers already campaigning for his job and two others expected to make formal announcements soon, Williams has not created a campaign committee, is not raising money and has not contacted longtime supporters. And several foot soldiers from previous races have joined other campaigns.

Yesterday's statements by Cropp, one of the mayor's political allies, send the clearest signal yet that he has decided against another run for office, said some Williams supporters and other mayoral contenders.

"I do not believe Linda Cropp would run for mayor if Mayor Williams was going to run," said council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), who announced his own candidacy for mayor June 19.

Cropp said she began making calls about a possible mayoral run soon after the council wrapped up the budget in early July. The response, she said, has been "very encouraging."

Emily Washington, vice president of the Ward 7 Democrats, said she was excited the minute she saw Cropp's name on her caller ID Monday night. "I said, 'Is this the call?' " Washington recalled. "She said, 'This is the call.' And I said, 'Thank God.' "

If she does run, Cropp plans to cast herself as the logical heir to Williams and a tested professional who helped engineer the city's economic renaissance. But in the meeting with Post editors, she also portrayed herself as a plugged-in resident of the city, where she has lived much of her adult life, and a consensus builder with the managerial skills to fix lingering problems in the city bureaucracy.

Cropp said education will be the most important issue in her campaign. Although only about a quarter of voters have children in the public school system, she said, the city needs good schools "in order to really move forward."

She offered several ideas for improvement, including closing underutilized school buildings and controlling the "tremendous growth" of public charter schools. Cropp said no other city has seen such a rapid proliferation in charter programs. As they draw more students from the traditional system, she said, "it could be the death knell for public education in the District."

Cropp dismissed as "a pipe dream" another proposal to help the school system: council member Adrian M. Fenty's plan to use proceeds from the D.C. Lottery as collateral to borrow $1 billion for school renovations. "I don't think it will pass, because it's an illusion," she said. "It sounds good . . . but the dollars aren't really there. That money is already being spent."

Fenty (D-Ward 4) is also running for mayor, and he has been campaigning hard on his schools bill. "I'm open to all kinds of strategies. I'm open to whatever is going to fix the schools," he said yesterday. "But people have been talking about closing schools and other things for decades now. And the residents are fed up. If we're not going to close the schools, then let's fix the schools that are there."

Fenty would not comment on the likelihood that he will be running against his council chairman, who, at 57, is 23 years his senior. "Whoever gets in this race I'm going to take extremely seriously," he said. So far, the competition includes Orange and former telecommunications executive Marie C. Johns (D). Lobbyist Michael A. Brown (D) plans to kick off his mayoral bid in September.

Brown's and Cropp's families have been close for years.

Cropp is "extremely talented and respected, and I would love to have her included in this debate about the future of the city," he said.

Linda W. Cropp met with the mayor a few weeks ago.