THEJOB of D.C. delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives is ill-defined in the minds of most voters here largely because only one person has held the office since the first election more than 19 years ago. Walter Fauntroy has enjoyed a long run, though his activities have not been much in the news. Now at least 10 people have stepped up to say they want the job -- and the competition should help to define just how this position could be used to improve the city's standing.

However much local independence the District may or should assert, its well-being depends heavily on congressional understanding -- something in desperately short supply these days. A damaged mayor and a string of departures of top cabinet talent have given some members of Congress new excuses to treat the city even more mischievously than usual; and while no new delegate could be expected to accomplish much if Mr. Barry were to remain as mayor for another four years, the duties of the next delegate will include some cleanup of the city government's image. City government experience might help, but even more important will be an ability to establish strong working relationships in both houses; this can produce money for the city as well as understanding -- a larger, fairer annual federal payment to the District, for example, as well as proper shares of federal grant programs.

Perhaps, too, the next delegate might remind the world regularly of the District's second-class status in Congress by announcing how he or she would have voted on the floor each time a tally is taken. After all, the interests of District voters -- like those in any state -- include national and foreign issues: taxes, defense spending, civil rights, clean air and so on. And it remains an outrage that District citizens are denied congressional representation.

It is too early to tell which candidate is best for this mission, but the field appears prepped for informed debate. Among the Democrats, the first announced candidate, Betty Ann Kane has been an at-large member of the council. Eleanor Holmes Norton is a local product who has had longstanding working relationships with key members of Congress and offers federal government experience. Donald M. Temple, though a political newcomer, has been a congressional aide for 10 years, serving as a senior staff lawyer for the House District of Columbia Committee and an aide to Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli of Kentucky. Other announced Democrats are Joseph Yeldell, a top Barry administration adviser whose dismal stewardship of the city's department of human resources during the Walter Washington administration included what the GAO found to be the misuse of $8,470 in federal grants meant for maternity and child care for two rather well-equipped automobiles, one of them personally driven by him; and Barbara Lett Simmons, a leading contributor to the D.C. school board's worst years. Still to announce is Sterling Tucker, former D.C. Council chairman and currently the Barry administration's anti-drug administrator.

In the Republican primary, political consultant Jim Champagne and former Department of Education civil rights chief Harry M. Singleton are vying for the nomination. In the Statehood Party primary, Tom Chorlton, a former Hill staffer, lobbyist and candidate for D.C. Council, seeks his party's nomination. George X. Cure, a legal adviser to the Nation of Islam, also plans to run for delegate.

How these candidates see the job of delegate -- ambassador, advocate, constituent servant, community bodyguard or all of these things -- will be relevant. We will be among those posing questions, and we will publish their responses as the campaign rolls on.