If ever there was a city that seemed ripe for change, it is Washington, D.C. Its mayor has been tried for drugs and perjury. It is synonymous around the world with high homicide rates and government scandals. But in the fight to replace Marion Barry, the candidate who advocates a break with the past is at the back of the pack.

While the other contenders tiptoe around the ruined but still loved mayor, Sharon Pratt Dixon wades in and whacks Barry and his enormous bureaucracy. A sharp, saucer-eyed lawyer who has the look of a 1930s' film heroine, she has been saying what many people think about the mayor's misconduct. She brings a welcome note of asperity to the otherwise bland discussion.

A year ago, when the mayor made an obscene gesture to a crowd in Adams-Morgan, Dixon called him up and suggested resignation. After he was caught smoking crack at the Vista hotel, she suggested he step aside.

More recently, Dixon, formerly a vice president for Pepco, gladdened some hearts and outraged others by threatening to cut 2,000 managers from the city's outsized bureaucracy.

It was an echo of years past. In 1982, another brilliant black woman lawyer, Patricia Roberts Harris, in a mayoral candidacy that Dixon served as political director, announced her intention to do a little weeding in the great garden of city workers. She was resoundingly defeated.

But Dixon says circumstances are different. The city is now broke, embarrassed, polarized, angry, and, she says, hungry for change.

"Marion cut the bureaucracy in his early years but built it back up," says Dixon, sitting in an office bare of any decoration except for a picture of herself and her two daughters. "I'm running against the City Council, too. They did nothing. They never, ever challenged the executive, never held hearings, never asked about homelessness, never asked why the city fought the not-for-profit groups, like Conserve and New Endeavors, never asked what was the matter with Marion."

She thinks a yearning for something different, reflected in a still large undecided vote, will surface in the last days of the campaign. She expects Washington's women, who comprise 60 percent of the vote, to put her over.

Front-runner John Ray says it's easy enough for Dixon to talk like that because she's an outsider. And it's easy to see why her approach is failing.

"We've heard the Barry story," he says. "There's so much bad news from the city, nobody wants to hear any more."

He's far too polite to say so, but you can almost hear him thinking that Dixon comes across shrewish.

Ray, a D.C. Council veteran, has raised far more than the other candidates, about $689,000, more than 20 percent of it from real estate interests. But he denies he is a captive, and points out the long list of pro-tenant measures he sponsored and helped pass.

He is cool, confident, nonthreatening. At a senior citizens' center, he speaks admiringly of Barry's record of programs for the seniors, promises to continue them. He is so plainly different from Barry, being quiet, diffident, specific, businesslike. He doesn't harp on the changes in store.

Seniors are the most courted of all voting groups. They are 37 percent of the voting population, and have a strong pro-Barry faction.

D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, who expected to walk away with the contest, is stalled. His frustration was expressed the other day when he called Ray the "great white hope" of developers. For a man who had entered the race as a "healer," it was a bad show.

Beneficiary of his excess is council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, the best campaigner of the lot, and the one who most assiduously -- and in vain -- sought Barry's endorsement. At the Fort Lincoln Senior Village, which she visited Tuesday, she got a vivid demonstration of why it could have been valuable, although she calls it, carefully, "a two-edged sword."

Jarvis, a large, ebullient woman who charmed the elders having lunch, opened her remarks by reminding them that Barry has decided not to run again -- "You don't have to worry about choosing between Mayor Barry and me." She promised to carry on his senior programs for the "frisky elderly."

At the tables, Barry was spoken of with affection and regret. A younger woman, Cathy Swann, told why Barry remains an icon despite his disgrace.

"I tell my 11-year-old son that this means nobody can conquer drugs, drugs conquer you, even someone as smart as Uncle Marion. Who knows, if the government hadn't decided to chase him, he might have quit drugs.

"To us, it's a black-white issue, not a right-wrong issue. I try not to turn my son against the media and the Justice Department."