With the election more than a year away, the race is on for D.C. mayor, and two candidates -- council Chairman Linda W. Cropp and Ward 4 council member Adrian M. Fenty -- are slugging it out for front-runner status.

Since Cropp (D) entered the race Wednesday, she and Fenty have traded thinly veiled barbs. Cropp characterized the campaign as a contest between "experienced leadership" and an untested, divisive novice. Fenty (D) cast himself as the candidate of the future and said other "people who are running" represent the "fiscal chaos" and "mismanagement" of the past.

Over the weekend, as both candidates hit the campaign trail, Fenty said the race offers a "clear choice" between moving "boldly into the future" and staying "chained to the past." Cropp supporters, meanwhile, queued up the first broadcast ad of the 2006 season, a withering attack scheduled to air today on drive-time radio that dismisses Fenty as "just not ready for the big leagues."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) seemed an afterthought amid the flurry of activity. Williams, who left Thursday for a weeklong trip to Greece and Germany, has told people he is not inclined to seek a third term.

Other contenders in the all-important Democratic primary -- Ward 5 council member Vincent B. Orange Sr., former telecommunications executive Marie C. Johns and lobbyist Michael A. Brown, who plans to announce his candidacy Wednesday -- are not well known to District voters, political analysts said, which leaves them far behind.

Cropp and Fenty "have well-defined images and bases, while the other candidates are essentially starting from scratch," said pollster Ron Lester, who surveyed voters this year for council candidate A. Scott Bolden. "If you had to handicap it now, you'd have to say that Adrian and Linda have a clear advantage over the rest of the field."

During the next 12 months, the debate between Cropp, 57, a polished veteran who had been considering retirement, and Fenty, 34, a brash newcomer known for his unvarnished political ambition, will present voters with a stark choice for the city's future. Cropp, a strong ally of Williams, promises stability and a continuation of policies that revived downtown and sparked an economic renaissance. Fenty, one of Williams's harshest critics, promises youthful energy and renewed focus on residents who have been untouched by the city's rising fortunes.

The contrast is evident on the campaign trail. At her announcement on historic U Street NW, Cropp hearkened back to the "struggling African Americans" who helped found Washington's vibrant black community. Stalwarts of the political establishment were at her side, including recently defeated council members Kevin P. Chavous and Harold Brazil, Democratic National Committeewoman Marilyn Tyler Brown and Elijah B. Rogers, a prominent businessman and city administrator under former mayor Marion Barry.

Cropp is "the most experienced candidate. She's got a demonstrated track record of working with a diverse community," Rogers said. "When Mrs. Cropp is elected mayor, you will see a tremendous change in the management of the city."

Fenty, who announced his candidacy in June, held a kickoff rally Saturday at his U Street headquarters, then set out to visit all eight city wards. Addressing a racially diverse crowd of neighborhood activists, college students and newcomers to local politics, Fenty referred to the "future" 20 times in his 10-minute speech.

"The District has to move on at some point," Fenty said in an interview. "We can't keep revisiting and rehashing the same people and the same ideas."

Cropp and Fenty point to last year's stadium debate as a good example of their contrasting styles. Cropp said Fenty's flat opposition to a publicly financed baseball stadium was imperious and inflexible. "Nobody is elected king," she said. "Negotiation is one of the hallmarks of good government and leadership."

Fenty said Cropp's efforts to modify the deal even as she criticized it demonstrated a lack of leadership. "Every decision you make cannot please everybody," he said. "Leadership is all about making a decision and sticking with it."

Political analysts said that Fenty's early start has allowed him to assemble an impressive citywide organization but that Cropp has loyalties stretching back 25 years and is likely to catch up fast.

Cropp already has snatched a number of supporters from Fenty's camp, including Marie Drissel, one of the architects of Williams's 1998 victory. Drissel hosted a fundraiser for Fenty in February, long before Cropp decided to run.

Drissel said she picked sides "too soon." Cropp has the potential to be "the first mayor other than Barry, when he first came to office, who knows how this city works and who's going to make it better," Drissel said.

Fenty played down the defections, saying he defeated former Ward 4 council member Charlene Drew Jarvis in 2000 with even less support from the mainline establishment. He compared himself to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (D), dynamic young leaders who also represented "a break from the past."

Cropp and Fenty are striving to keep the debate civil, but the calm tones are unlikely to last. As Brown embraced his "underdog" status and Johns acknowledged Cropp's "impact" on the race, Orange went on the attack last week.

In an interview, Orange mocked Cropp, a former school board president, for promising to improve city schools. "She's had 25 years to do that. And the schools aren't fixed," he said.

And Orange criticized Fenty, a lawyer, for bungling the case of an elderly probate client five years ago. "If he couldn't handle a $20,000 estate, what makes you think he's going to be able to handle an $8 billion city budget?" Orange asked.

"Stay tuned," Orange added. "To say this is a two-person race is ridiculous."

Whatever the number of candidates, it's not enough for Anwar Saleem, a hair salon owner on H Street NE. In interviews, Saleem and a number of other voters said they're still hoping for a fresh face.

"I don't think there's a good pool of candidates," Saleem said. Fenty needs "more experience," and people wonder why Cropp hasn't "stepped up and done more."

Cropp is "probably the best thing out there," Saleem said. But "people want a change."

D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, left, makes a campaign stop at a Hillcrest Recreation Center luncheon, where she met Andree Martin.D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty, with his wife, Michelle, and their twin sons, Matthew and Andrew, kicks off his mayoral campaign on U Street.