The debate over whether a white could or should be elected to a top District leadership post this year, which has simmered behind the scenes for months, finally broke into the open yesterday as the campaign leading to the Sept. 11 Democratic primary continued to heat up.

Several prominent blacks, including noted civil rights activist Roger Wilkins, condemned the view that a white person cannot be elected mayor of Washington. Meanwhile, George X Cure, the Nation of Islam candidate for D.C. delegate, told a television audience that it would be better for a black person than a white to represent the District in Congress.

The comments, highlighting the sharp differences of opinion on the impact of race in D.C. politics, came as two whites -- D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke (D) and council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) -- mount strong bids for mayor and delegate, respectively.

Wilkins, who coordinated the U.S. visit of African National Congress Deputy President Nelson Mandela, said the city "needs its ablest citizens regardless of race."

"We are proponents of the ideal of equal opportunity based on character and ability, and should be the first people to reject the notion that you vote based solely on race," said Wilkins, a professor at George Mason University. "That's absurd; that's not what we're about."

Wilkins spoke at a news conference called by Clarke to respond to a recent report in The Washington Post indicating that Clarke didn't receive the endorsement of a Teamsters union local in part because of the perception that a white candidate would have difficulty winning the primary.

This was the first time that Clarke, the only white person seeking the Democratic mayoral nomination, has initiated a public discussion of the race issue in the campaign.

The Post article quoted Teamsters officials as saying they believed Clarke to have the strongest pro-labor record of any candidate in the race, but that he failed to win the support of the union's executive board because of the perceived problems of a white running for mayor in a predominantly black city.

"I just felt it needed to be responded to," said Clarke.. "I'm not saying anybody's racist here . . . . I'm just trying to say that we as leaders, wherever we are, have to rise above all that."

Clarke said he had heard similar concerns about his race expressed by members of other groups that did not endorse him, including the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city's leading gay political club, and the American Federation of Government Employees.

"I've felt all along that if I was judged on my merits and judged on my record . . . I would be successful," Clarke said.

Eddie Kornegay, president of Teamsters Joint Council 55, said yesterday that the union's position "was taken out of context," and that race was not "the predominant issue" in the union's deliberations. The union split its endorsement between council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.).

"Nobody quarrels that Dave Clarke has a strong pro-labor record," Kornegay said. "The sentiment was not that he couldn't win because he was white -- but that he can't win. There was nothing racist about it."

But he added, "For people to say, in a city that's 75 percent black, that race is not a factor -- they're not dealing with reality."

Mauro Montoya, president of the Gertrude Stein Club, said he believes race was not a factor in the group's decision to endorse Jarvis over Clarke. "Dave has an excellent record on our issues," he said. "It was a feeling that she could do a better job running the city."

Joslyn N. Williams, leader of the Washington area AFL-CIO, noted that Clarke won the unified support of organized labor in 1982, when he defeated two black candidates to become chairman of the council.

The AFL-CIO did not endorse a candidate for mayor this year. Williams said that Clarke was hurt by the concern that his temper might make him unsuited for the mayor's job.

"If there was something that was an obstacle for Dave Clarke, it wasn't his race," Williams said. "It was a perception that he did not have the proper temperament."

Council member John Ray (D-At Large), a leading candidate for mayor, played down the importance of race in the campaign. He said D.C. voters "clearly demonstrated their ability" to disregard the issue when they elected Clarke as council chairman.

In the contest to succeed Fauntroy as the nonvoting delegate to Congress, Kane is battling five black candidates for the Democratic nomination. Cure recently dropped out of the Democratic primary, saying he feared that the "majority community" vote was being fragmented. Kane said she interpreted that as a disturbing racial appeal.

In an interview on Fox Morning News yesterday, Cure said that Kane's response to his move suggests racism on her part. Cure, who is now running as an independent for the delegate seat, said that the interests of the District would be better served by a black candidate.

Kane later called the remarks an insult, and added: "We don't need that kind of rhetoric in the campaign. I was waiting for someone to play the race card, and he's doing it."

Meanwhile, another Democratic mayoral candidate, Sharon Pratt Dixon, described as "totally absurd" a rumor that she is about to drop out of the race.

Sources close to the Dixon campaign said yesterday that representatives from the Ray and Fauntroy campaigns have approached the Dixon camp to see if she would be willing to drop out of the race in exchange for appointment to the job of city administrator.

Staff writer Mary Ann French contributed to this report.