Lawyers for D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, confounded by their lack of headway in plea bargaining with federal prosecutors, have seized on one last chance to advance the mayor's cause even as they prepare for his trial on drug and perjury charges: Paint Barry as a defeated politician and an unworthy target for the full force of the law.

According to sources familiar with Barry's case, defense attorneys R. Kenneth Mundy and Robert W. Mance have decided on this course because U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens has remained resolute in his position on negotiations about a possible plea.

First, the sources said, Stephens has said it is up to the defense to propose the outline of a possible plea, and second, the plea must include a felony.

Given that set of facts, the sources said it is virtually certain that there will be a trial because the mayor has insisted that he will not plead guilty to a felony and that Barry's best chance of avoiding conviction is to present himself as someone who has already lost his most important asset, his career in elective politics.

The sources, who agreed to be interviewed only if they were not identified, said Stephens has told associates that Barry's case is one that should go to trial so that Washingtonians can decide for themselves whether the government -- or Barry -- has acted improperly.

Stephens's reasoning, the sources said, is based on several factors. Among them, they said, is the prosecutor's belief that he and his colleagues have a powerful case in which they have been able to assemble a group of witnesses who will describe in detail their alleged drug experiences with the mayor.

Second, the sources said, is Stephens's stated unwillingness to be seen as an unelected federal official dictating who should be mayor of the District. When Stephens talked to reporters in January about a possible plea agreement that would include Barry's resignation, he was roundly criticized. Recently, he issued a statement saying resignation is "irrelevant" to prosecution of the case.

Perhaps the strongest factor, sources said, is Stephens's belief that the public should have a chance to see the evidence. Stephens took a similar position in a highly publicized murder case last year when he unsuccessfully tried to stop a Superior Court judge from accepting a guilty plea from Ian Blair, a young white man who killed one person and wounded two others in a racially motivated shooting spree in Southeast Washington. {Jury selection continued in U.S. District Court. Story on Page D1.}

The facts in that case were very different from those in Barry's, the sources noted, but the principles were nearly the same: Stephens has said that some cases cry out to be tried in open court.

Barry, meanwhile, has run the gamut of emotions in recent private discussions about the trial and his decision to abandon his reelection plans, according to several of his friends and supporters.

One adviser who met with Barry and a dozen other associates Sunday night said the mayor "made a point" of telling the group how difficult he expects the trial to be.

"Marion hates the idea of a trial," said the Barry confidant. "He's a human being; he realizes the severity of the situation."

At the same time, despite the enormous legal difficulty he faces, Barry has tried to appear calm, even upbeat, in the small gatherings he has held with close friends.

"He has accepted the fact that this is something he feels he must go through," said the Rev. Carlton Veazey, a childhood friend of the mayor's who shared breakfast with Barry and about a dozen other ministers yesterday.

"He does not seem reluctant to face up to it," Veazey said. "He's very much up and energized about it."

The Rev. A. Michael Charles Durant, who hosted the breakfast at his Tenth Street Baptist Church, said Barry described the outlook for the trial as "good," never indicating a desire to avoid the court proceeding.

"I left the meeting encouraged about the mayor's general aura in this whole thing," Durant said. "I didn't sense any sadness."

Other Barry loyalists, though, say they have come to the bitter conclusion that an era in D.C. politics is ending with a trial that could forever taint the mayor's 12 years in office.

"Stephens is playing hardball and it will lead to a trial that could be painfully embarrassing to Marion -- and to some of his friends," said one staunch Barry supporter who met with the mayor on Sunday.

"It may take a lot of embarrassment before the mayor revises his plea offer," the supporter said, "but even then, would Stephens take it? Probably not."