CLEVELAND, NOV. 1 -- There is an unlikely new hero in the white, ethnic wards of Cleveland's West Side. He is Michael R. White, a young black candidate for mayor who has been accused of being a wife-beater and a "slumlord" in an exceedingly nasty campaign. White, a 38-year-old state senator, vehemently denies the charges. He portrays himself as a reformer and new breed of black politician. He opposes school busing for integration. He wants to hire 250 new police officers, put the city on a zero-based budget system and end decades of racial politics that has pitted blacks against whites, the city's East Side against the West. Walter Dodds, a truck mechanic who can't remember ever voting for a black candidate, said he and most of his neighbors plan to vote for White in the Nov. 7 election. It would be nice to report that the support of Dodds and others is based on a sense of shared views or purpose. But politics is seldom so simple, and the mayor's race here is especially rife with contradictions. For this is the first time Cleveland, one of the nation's most segregated cities, will choose its mayor between two black candidates, White and longtime City Council President George L. Forbes. "In a year like this you vote for the lesser of two evils," said Dodds, 46. "The issue for me and a lot of West Siders is to keep Forbes out of the mayor's office. He is too hot-tempered and racist. We call him King George around here." Forbes, City Council president for the last 16 years, has been closely allied with Republican Mayor George V. Voinovich, who led the city out of default, reshaped its image and helped bring a building boom to the once-stagnant downtown. Voinovich plans to run for governor. Supported by most of Cleveland's major business and labor groups, Forbes is known for his skill as an insider wheeler-dealer -- many consider him more powerful than the outgoing mayor -- and for his roughhouse tactics and his foul mouth. During the campaign for the Oct. 3 primary, Forbes said one white opponent was "a racist, a bigot and a pimp." He once called a black city councilman a "punk mulatto" and threw a chair at him. He asked a pregnant woman, who was testifying before a council committee, "Are you knocked up again?" Forbes, 58, admits that his past handicaps him, and has tried to soften his image by portraying himself as a family man and longtime Sunday-school teacher. "I'm probably running more against the old George Forbes than Mike White," he said during a television debate Monday night. It has been 22 years since Cleveland became the first major U.S. city to elect a black mayor, Carl B. Stokes, but few anticipated a runoff between two blacks this fall. Until its closing days, the primary campaign was seen simply as a contest over which of three white candidates would survive to oppose Forbes. An editorial endorsement of White by the Plain Dealer, the city's only daily newspaper, changed the dynamics of the race. White, a former Forbes protege who had almost no campaign money, swept to a second-place primary finish with one-quarter of the white West Side vote. A Plain Dealer poll three weeks later found him leading Forbes by 46 to 27 percent and supported by two-thirds of white voters. The race has narrowed since, but observers say they believe that Forbes still trails. Slightly more than half of Cleveland voters are white. White is part of an emerging new generation of black leaders who came of age in the post-civil-rights era of the 1970s, a generation more comfortable in the television studio than on the picket line. He holds a master's degree in public administration and was the first black student body president at Ohio State University. "He is the new kid on the block. He was in a unique position in the primary to define himself because no one knew the guy," said Gerald Austin, a Forbes adviser who managed Jesse L. Jackson's 1988 presidential bid. But since the primary, the news media and Forbes forces have been defining White in the most unflattering of terms. First came reports that White's first wife had accused him of beating and abusing her during their divorce proceedings. Then his second wife held a news conference in which she charged White had abused her physically on three occasions. White, now married for a third time, attributed the allegations from the first wife to "regrettable things said" during the heat of a divorce. He denied the charges from his second wife, saying "my marriage to her ended due to her substance abuse {which he identified as cocaine use} and her unwillingess to seek help." Meanwhile, seven city building inspectors showed up on the same day at rental properties owned by White and found about 200 code violations. Forbes promptly called White "a slumlord." Editorially, the Plain Dealer accused the Forbes campaign of generating damaging news reports about White. Forbes denied that charge. There were suspicious signs, however. A top Forbes aide, for example, acknowledged holding a meeting with the city police chief to discuss what police could do to help the campaign. Members of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, which has endorsed Forbes, leaked 20-year-old records of White being arrested for shoplifting a 59-cent dog collar and participating in a student demonstration at Ohio State. White expects the campaign to get even nastier. "They have no choice but to keep up the campaign of character assassination," he said. Yet he remains the front-runner. "Things bounce off him," said Robert Hughes, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party. "The bullet doesn't hit him. A lot of people don't believe the wife-beating and slumlord charges are true. . . . This isn't an election. It is a referendum on George Forbes."