For Walter Edward Fauntroy, who believes the past is often prologue in politics, the D.C. mayor's race of 1990 could be 1971 all over again.

It was 19 years ago, not long after riots had devastated the streets where he played as a child, that the civil rights leader and Baptist pastor launched a Democratic primary campaign to become the District's first delegate to Congress in modern times.

Then, as now, Fauntroy faced strong opponents, one the darling of voters in predominantly white Ward 3, the other with close ties to the incumbent city administration. Then, as now, Fauntroy cast himself as a racial healer, while shrewdly courting the support of disaffected black voters. He spoke then about the need for affordable housing and economic justice, powerful themes in the wake of the 1968 civil disturbances and the very ones he is focusing on today.

Dismissed at the time as a third-place finisher, Fauntroy won the delegate's race handily and settled into an office that locally was second only to that of mayor. Never facing strong opposition, Fauntroy used his office to enhance his national and international profile, sometimes at the expense, he now concedes, of his own political base in the District.

Today, two weeks before the election that will decide his political fate, Fauntroy is in many ways revisiting his first campaign for public office, hoping the politics of protest still count for something, struggling even now to tell voters what his life's work has been about.

"The people do not know me," Fauntroy said in an interview not long after his March entry into the mayor's race. "They don't know what I do on the Hill."

At 57 the oldest Democrat seeking the mayoral nomination in the party's Sept. 11 primary, Fauntroy is in the midst of a rocky transition from the comfort of a safe congressional seat to the uncertainty of a five-way race to succeed D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.

Gone is the euphoria that accompanied his announcement at Howard University last spring, when he took several hundred friends on a nostalgic trip through his career, touching on his marriage of 33 years, his pastorship of New Bethel Baptist Church, the day in 1969 when President Nixon stood in the riot rubble of Seventh Street NW and pledged millions of dollars for redevelopment of Fauntroy's native Shaw neighborhood, and the many federal grants Fauntroy obtained for housing, police and other programs.

Fauntroy's speech was all high drama and powerful emotion, and he waited -- tearfully -- until the final seconds of the address to announce his decision to run.

With Barry out of town in addiction treatment and the mayoral contest unsettled, the splash that Fauntroy made that day seemed likely to propel him to the front ranks of the Democratic contenders.

But the campaign soon foundered, upstaged by Barry and plagued by Fauntroy's own indecisiveness. With time running out, political analysts say his chances of winning are remote.

"I've risked all," Fauntroy said of his decision to give up the legislative seniority that had elevated him to the second-highest seat on the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee.

"If I miss," he added, "all of that potential leverage, all of that vision I wanted for Africa and the Caribbean and the South . . . will be gone."

Fauntroy's closest friends say that having jumped into the mayor's race -- a move initially opposed by his immediate family and church congregation -- the delegate is quite comfortable with the gamble. And Fauntroy himself has said repeatedly he views his candidacy as part of the thread of public service he established early in life.

Fauntroy wanted to be a preacher from childhood and attended Virginia Union University in Richmond, where one night in a dormitory a mutual friend introduced him to Martin Luther King Jr., the seminarian who was then beginning to formulate a strategy for winning full civil rights for American blacks.

The two talked deep into the night, forming a friendship that would endure through the most difficult days of the civil rights movement. Fauntroy, whose friends back home in Shaw cooked church suppers to raise his tuition for Yale Divinity School, later became King's lieutenant in Washington, serving as a coordinator for some of the key events in the movement, including the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery.

When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later, Fauntroy was among the handful of black leaders invited to the White House ceremonies; pictures of those events now hang in a place of honor in his congressional office.

In the late 1960s, Fauntroy -- who was then alarmed by the displacement of blacks from Southwest Washington, Georgetown and other neighborhoods -- concentrated on the revitalization of Shaw, winning federal grants to rehabilitate housing and spark investment in the historic Northwest Washington neighborhood.

In that pre-home rule era of District government, Fauntroy won a presidential appointment to a two-year term on the D.C. City Council. By the time he left the council in 1969, he had the makings of a political base for the eventual delegate's race.

Nevertheless, by the time the primary arrived in March 1971, Fauntroy was widely perceived as an underdog against better-known and wealthier opponents. "We didn't think we were going to win," recalled David Abramson, a media expert who took Fauntroy on as the second client of his political advertising career.

The Fauntroy campaign was the model of simplicity -- radio jingles that chirped, "He's going to get us together" and shopping bags promoting Fauntroy as a man of the people.

"His message at the time was that he could deal with blacks and whites together," Abramson said of Fauntroy. "In those days, he was really a hard worker. He had such energy and talent around him. And he struck a responsive chord."

Fauntroy's legendary energy -- he holds a black belt in karate, plays a wicked first base and used to burst into song in fine tenor voice -- served him well in his early days in Congress. For instance, in 1973, he played a major role in steering through Congress the landmark bill giving D.C. residents the right to vote for their own city officials.

In 1978, Fauntroy also helped win passage of legislation granting District residents full voting representation in both houses of Congress. The measure was in the form of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but Fauntroy -- after criss-crossing the country for several years -- was able to muster only 16 of the 38 states needed for passage.

It was during the struggle for the voting rights amendment -- a victim, in part, of a confused political strategy and warring political factions in the District -- that Fauntroy's devotion to local issues seemed to wane.

Gradually, he focused more on developing a national network of black politicians and on international issues, such as conflicts in the Middle East and the promotion of justice for blacks in Africa.

Occasionally, there were public relations blunders, such as the time in 1979 when he traveled to Lebanon and met with and embraced Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, a move that offended many Jewish voters in the District.

Fauntroy said in an interview there was nothing wrong with the trip, but added he should have been more assertive in trying to secure a meeting with Israeli officials while he was in the Mideast.

The delegate was also embarrassed by a long-running Justice Department investigation into whether he put the son of a House colleague, Rep. Gus Savage (D-Ill.), on his congressional payroll while the son maintained residence in Chicago and rarely showed up for work on Capitol Hill. Justice dropped the inquiry earlier this year and declined to prosecute Fauntroy, who had denied any wrongdoing.

In February, Fauntroy held a news conference to call on District residents to withhold their income taxes from the federal government to increase pressure for statehood -- an act of civil disobedience that Fauntroy warned could land participants in jail. Fauntroy dropped the idea shortly after declaring for mayor, but blamed the news media for misconstruing his tax revolt proposal.

As for the time he spent on issues outside the District, Fauntroy said he was determined from his first days as delegate to resist "at every point judging the actions of the locally elected government." At the same time, he acknowledged that he concentrated on other interests "in some instances, to a fault" and created the perception "that I was removing myself" from the local Democratic establishment and city concerns.

Fauntroy's unfamiliarity with the inner workings of D.C. government has cost him some support among students of the city bureaucracy. Julius Hobson Jr., who served as Fauntroy's administrative assistant for two years in the early 1980s before becoming Barry's lobbyist on Capitol Hill, said he is voting for John Ray, in large part because "whoever is mayor has to have a working knowledge of city government and its agencies. They've got to hit the ground running."

His defenders say Fauntroy tried gamely in Congress to strike a balance between local and global issues, most times succeeding, sometimes failing.

"Walter may be more highly regarded in Port-au-Prince {Haiti} and Soweto {South Africa} than he is in his own city," said Harley Daniels, a longtime friend and political adviser.

House Majority Whip William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), who credits Fauntroy with inspiring him to enter politics, says it would be "crazy" to expect Fauntroy to have devoted most of his time on Capitol Hill to local issues.

"The criticism that, hey, he's been busy with other issues -- well, he was your national representative," Gray said in a recent interview. "In the national legislature, you make laws not only about D.C., but you make them about the whole United States."

However, Fauntroy's frequent trips and his studied inattention to the nitty-gritty of District-related legislation caught up with him in 1988, when House members, many of them eager to punish the Barry administration for its perceived excesses, startled the delegate by using the city's annual budget to overturn some locally enacted initiatives.

Fauntroy concedes that he was caught by surprise, largely because he traditionally assumed no role in the annual review of the District's budget on Capitol Hill. At one point during the budget deliberations he pleaded tearfully with House colleagues to reverse their actions.

"It was frustrating," Fauntroy said of the episode, "and if there's anything that I would redo as delegate, it would have been not to allow myself to be separated on the appropriations function."

"I then shifted," he added. "I said from now on I will be an actor on appropriations . . . for the first time in 19 years."

Fauntroy, who clearly loved his career in Congress, said one of the things that prepared him to run for mayor was his decision last year to adopt a "boarder baby," an abandoned child of a drug addict, into his family. At first, Fauntroy said, he resisted the idea, but his wife, Dorothy, reminded him of the line from the Bible: "He that would save his life shall lose it."

Although leaving the House meant forsaking a shot at being chairman of the banking committee, the gamble is better than having his infant daughter, Melissa Alice, "grow up among people who are full of hate because they're piled up, two or three families in units that were designed for one."

"I'm excited about what I want to do" as mayor, Fauntroy added. "My only concern is I may not get {through to voters} in time" for the election.