Like boxers nearing the end of a championship fight, the three contenders for the Democratic nomination for mayor of the District of Columbia verbally sparred, punched and jabbed at each other for two hours last night in their last major confrontation before Tuesday's crucial primary.

In the end, none of the candidates - Mayor Walter E. Washington, City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker and council member Marion Barry - seemed to be able to deliver the knockout punch. All three did get in their licks, rubbing a bit of political salt in their opponents' soft spots.

There was Tucker looking earnestly into the live WJLA-TV camera and a Howard University audience and saying, "We've had 11 years of charisma. What we need now is four years of competence."

There was Washington lumping his two rivals together as if they somehow were running mates, saying, "I must be doing something right if they both say they're running against me. They don't say they're running against each other."

And there was Barry saying that Tucker and Washington were the big ones to blame for the city's problems. "The question is whether the people want the status quo, the bungling, the inefficiency, the mismanagement, the no management" of the years Tucker and Washington have been in the D.C. government, he said.

The debate was spirited at times with Barry and particularly Washington frequently interrupting their rivals' answers with sarcastic asides. Tucker seemed more subdued than the other two, as has been his campaign style.

Washington, adopting a feisty debate style, seemed to revel in chiding his two opponents about their abortive political summit last Thursday at which Tucker strategists had hoped Barry would drop out of the race and support Tucker. Barry never showed up and his campaign manager later said he never had any intention of doing so.

"I represent leadership that's proven, leadership with integrity, leadership that's honest, leadership that doesn't get involved in midnight maneuvers to deprive the city of its freedom of choice" of candidates, the mayor said.

When four reporters questioned Tucker about the planned meeting at the home of the Rev. David Eaton, Washington quickly interjected, "I want to hear more about it. I'm the mayor. I'm included in most things, but nobody called me."

At another point, when Tucker was asked about his role in the unsuccessful attempt - without the mayor's knowledge - last year to get Washington an ambassadorship before his current term ends, Washington again interrupted with the plaintive voice of a shunned person: "I'm the victim of all this: That's why I wanted to hear about this."

All three candidates used the forum to point to their records as reasons why the District of Columbia's 190,000 Democrats - the overwhelming majority of the city's population - should vote for them on Tuesday. Their recitations seemed only to rouse their foes into quick retorts about mistakes they remembered their opponents making.

Tucker cited, as he has often during the campaign, the many pieces of legislation he said the council had approved with allegedly no help later from the mayor in enforcing the measures. "That's been characteristic of this administration," Tucker said. "He does not recognize the council yet" and instead continues to deal with Congress as in the pre-home rule period of the city's political life.

Washington said the council-passed legislation often was "sloppy."

"You don't know whether it's a resolution or a law," Washington said. "We have to send them back. Here's Marion over there. He never knows what the facts are. He just rambles on."

When Barry cited the mayor's allegedly poor management record as mayor, Washington retorted: "Let me give you one example of Marion Barry's management record." He cited Barry's request for city aid in bailing out Pride, the self-help business group for black youths that Barry helped found. "You never handled anything but Pride and that went down," Washington told Barry.

"I recognize there's some tired blood in city hall," Tucker said, explaining what he'd do as mayor. "The record of my leadership speaks for itself. What this election is about is leadership and change. We need a leader who understands leadership. If we do not move now . . . home rule will mean nothing."

Barry said he had done more than Tucker in getting legislation passed during the last four years while they have served on the council together. Then Barry said that although the mayor has had "more administrative experience than either of us he's misused it, mismanaged it, misdirected it."

Washington steadfastly defended his record saying at one point that the much-criticized city housing director, Lorenzo Jacobs, "has done the job." Both Barry and Tucker have said they would fire Jacobs and others if they are elected.

down city governmental flow chart for the camera, said he was "not satisfied" with some performances in his government, although he did not say exactly what.

Earlier in the day, Tucker released his seventh campaign position paper, this one on neighborhoods. He promised that if he is elected he would gradually decentralize city services to bring them closer to city residents, give the District of Columbia's advisory neighborhood commissions a "substantive role," and establish an Office of Neighborhoods in the mayor's office to help individual communities in the city get the city and federal services and programs they want.

Barry and Washington spent the morning attending church services in the never-ending search for votes. Later, Barry walked door-to-door at the Capitol Park apartment complex in Southwest Washington.