AS THE CURTAIN rises on the final act of the mayoral primary, the candidates are on stage pumping hands, kissing babies, debating and attacking each other. But much of the audience, emotionally drained by the trial of the incumbent Marion Barry, seems to have fallen asleep.

They better wake up fast. This city is bankrupt. Its next mayor will not be able to hand out program services and jobs to keep social pressures in the city under control. The proportion of poor people in the city is growing rapidly, increasing demands for social services while the tax base is eroding. The combination threatens the city's stability.

The winner of this fall's mayoral election will have the unenviable task of steering the nation's capital through possibly the most difficult economic circumstances it has experienced in modern history. At a time when almost every area of the country will be competing for scarce jobs, investment capital and federal tax dollars, the city's new leader will need an impeccable record of personal integrity and management skill to restore the city's reputation as an attractive place for private investment. Jobs won't be coming from the District Building anymore, or even the White House, but from K Street, the New York Avenue industrial corridor and corner stores and malls.

Philip M. Dearborn, an expert on municipal finance and former city financial adviser, speaks frankly about the capital's plight. "I see a disaster coming, no question," said Dearborn. "The hole is pretty deep for the {city} government to climb out of and it is being made more difficult by the national economy's problems.

The city has an estimated $100-million budget deficit. The federal government has informed the city it may have to cut the federal payment as part of its deficit-reduction package. And on the revenue side, the stagnant economy, the stench from the Barry trial and the city's reputation as a murder capital are undermining the city's revenue base. Tourism, the city's top industry, is down, taking with it restaurant, hotel and retail sales. Commercial and residential real estate markets are foundering as the result of overbuilding in the '80s and recent cutbacks in federal contracting both in the region and the city.

"Trouble is coming and we've got to have a plan," said Barry's predecessor, Walter Washington. "This city has been operating without a plan for too long, it's just been spend here, spend there to keep your friends happy and that day is over."

Actually Barry had a plan. It was to put as many residents of the city as possible on the payroll. But Barry's successor won't have that luxury.

"The main difficulty coming up," said Reed Tuckson, the city's former health commissioner, "is that there has been a lack of telling the truth about what the government can realistically pay for . . . . We would announce there was a new AIDS program and the money would go to cover shortfalls for police. There was no new program. Now given the recession and the deficit can anyone stand up and say, 'We really can't do any wonderful new initiative.' That's what is going to have to happen."

"The era of government handing out jobs and services is over -- that's come to an end," said James Hudson, a local lawyer and developer who has long been involved in city politics.

The social problems of a city already reeling from the tensions of the Barry case -- and increasingly divided between rich and poor, black and white -- could make the city a very nasty place to govern. The next mayor will find the District building under financial siege, its resources diminishing even as the demands upon them increase.

"Right now the middle class is leaving the city," said Hudson, "and saying they are paying higher taxes and not getting good schools or services. The wealthy know they can't expect anything. And the poor are saying they want more, they need more, there's more unemployment . . . . This city cut back on rent control, but now there is no money to put in any tenants' assistance program. People are going to feel the pressure."

"There is going to be a major problem coming with the city's unions," said Dwight Cropp, a long-time District government official. "They are used to Marion giving them everything they ask for. The next mayor is not going to be able to give everything. In fact, the next mayor is probably going to be asking for furloughs and cutting back on city employees. I see strikes coming, very bitter strikes because people here are not used to the government coming up empty-handed."

And then there are the poor. "The District has always been heavy on low-income population but during the '80s the proportion just got bigger," said George Grier, a demographer with the Greater Washington Research Center. "And there has been a sharp decline in households with $60,000 to $100,000 incomes. So it's not good news. It is very difficult to tax those folks remaining in the city because the majority can't afford it and those who can afford it can also afford to move . . . .. People are under an awful lot of pressure." Judging from the paid media campaigns conducted by some of the candidates, you would scarcely be aware that the city's circumstances require a totally new approach to the way it is governed. On the contrary, the candidates promise more programs, more services and more contracts for minority businessmen. John Ray, for example, has ads in which he promises help for tenants and owners of distressed property. Walter Fauntroy promises "a program to lift this city up where we belong." David Clarke promises city attention to "decent and affordable housing." Charlene Drew Jarvis promises to "work for students and seniors." Sharon Pratt Dixon alone talks about cutting the city government and recognizing that there is no money to provide anything but the most basic services. Having taken a lesson from Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, most candidates have waged "Bush-ized" campaigns, promising not to raise taxes. Only Ray has refused to take that pledge.

"The nature of politics in a progressive political community has been that you don't campaign on a theme of proposing to do less or nothing," said Ivanhoe Donaldson, former top political adviser to Mayor Barry. "The reality is that the city has not honestly balanced its budget for two to three years but tried to expand to deal with the drug problem, corrections problems. That's over. People are not going to like it."

"One of the things I found working in D.C. government," said Tuckson, "was a reluctance on the part of city officials to say they are trying to be prudent money managers. {Voters} don't want to hear that. There's an expectation that the government can pay for it all."

That's an expectation that Barry's successor must have the courage to deflate.

"The next mayor, said Walter Washington, "is going to have to get control of the government -- find out where the resources are -- which agencies are functioning and where the finances are . . . ."

But after the Barry years there is an additional hurdle, Washington said. "There is a deep distrust of the D.C. government that exists all over this city as never before. There is distrust even among the people loyal to Barry about how the rest of the city sees them. The next mayor is going to have to climb over all that in addition to the financial crisis."

"People on the council screamed that Barry was not dealing with budget problems, and no one paid them any attention," said Cropp. "That allowed Barry to hide the problem and tell people not to worry about the deficit. But now we are beyond hiding the problem. We also have the fall off in the economy and we have the bad feelings left by Barry. Congress, the president and OMB are not going out of their way to help the city because they and the nation right now lack confidence in the D.C. government."

One source of possible help for the new city leader is a report due out in November from the Commission on the Budget and Financial Priorities of D.C. Although commission members won't talk publicly about their work, several have indicated that cutting the size of the D.C. government -- along with expectations for city services -- is the main recommendation the commission will make because half of the city's revenues go to pay ever-increasing personnel costs.

"If you have to cut, it's going to be cutting people first," said one person familiar with the commission's work. "It's better to cut city workers than services to the poor." But cutting salaries and furloughing city employees will be especially painful at a time when private sector employment is sagging.

"I don't know of a business outside of Giant Food and Hechinger's that is making any money right now," said Bill Regardie, publisher of the major local business magazine. "Everybody I know is getting clobbered . . . . The last two quarters in a row have been down in sales and profits. That is going to mean exacerbated revenue problems for the District. If business is bad then tax revenues go down."

Atlee Shidler, president of the Greater Washington Research Center, sees a city with an excess of office space and faltering tourism, both signs of economic trouble. Stephen S. Fuller, chairman of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at George Washington University, also notes that the District's unemployment rate has now risen above the national average and the city has already seen a fiscal year 1989 drop of $500 million in sales by local suppliers to the federal government

"There is no official recession here but we're pretty damn close and picking up speed," said Fuller.

Washington has no time for another seriously flawed personality at its helm. A majority of voters, questioned by pollsters, seem to recognize that by citing "past record and personal character" as the dominant factor in this election. But voters may still not recognize the harshness of the decisions that have to be made.

Campaign advisers, looking at the polls, know voters are seeking a trustworthy person to guide them through difficult times. Character is the trait they are pitching in their speeches and advertisements.

John Ray's advertisements state that he will be a "role model for our youth." Sharon Pratt Dixon campaigns on the promise of bringing "integrity back to government." Charlene Drew Jarvis's ads feature her with her children and invoke the integrity of her father, a famous doctor. Walter Fauntroy has adopted a crack baby. David Clarke campaigns with a stack of notebooks filled with facts and figures to prove he knows the extent of the lies that have been told to cover-up the city's problems.

Not all of the candidates' records fully support their assertions of trustworthiness and integrity. But trustworthiness and integrity, as well as competence, are what it will take to get the city through the coming hard times.

The city's social and economic problems will only be made worse by demagoguery, fingerpointing, extravagant promises, casting the city's problems in racial terms. What the city's voters need to ask themselves as they go to the polls on Tuesday is not only which candidate is best able to manage the city's troubled affairs, but which they will trust to speak honestly both to the poor in need of services and the taxpayers who must pay the bill. The question is, from whom do they want to hear the bad news?

Juan Williams writes frequently on politics for Outlook.