D.C. Democrats, still unsettled by the political upheaval that followed the arrest and trial of Mayor Marion Barry, go to the polls Tuesday to select a mayoral nominee in a five-way contest that now seems suddenly competitive.

After eight months quite unlike any in the history of District politics, many Democrats remain uncertain about their choice for a standard-bearer to succeed Barry, who dominated the city and its ruling party for more than a decade. With Barry absent from the mayoral primary ballot for the first time since 1978, some voters have been bewildered by the array of choices in an election that had few issues to define the candidates sharply.

Yet, as Washingtonians have begun to focus on the pivotal primary, the contest has appeared to tighten considerably.

John Ray, an at-large member of the D.C. Council who cast himself as an alternative to the flamboyance of the Barry era, still leads in the polls but is facing strong challenges from Ward 4 council member Charlene Drew Jarvis and Sharon Pratt Dixon, a local lawyer who has captivated many Democrats with her populist rhetoric and pledge to "clean house" in D.C. government.

Meanwhile, D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke and Walter E. Fauntroy, the longtime delegate to Congress, have largely failed to fire the imagination of voters, according to observers and reputable polls.

Fauntroy, who lost touch with many District residents during his 19 years in Congress, suffered organizational problems in his campaign, while Clarke, the only white candidate in the field, seemed hurt in part by the city's racially charged atmosphere and his strong and sometimes abrasive personality.

The Democrats set a spending record of more than $2 million for the primary, with Ray alone accounting for about half the total. The fund-raising advantage has enabled Ray to dominate the campaign in terms of television advertising, but Jarvis and Dixon raised enough to mount modest efforts over the final days.

The winner of the Democratic contest will face Republican Maurice T. Turner Jr., a former D.C. police chief, and D.C. Statehood Party member Alvin C. Frost in the Nov. 6 general election. Turner and Frost have no primary opposition.

All five Democrats took to the streets and neighborhoods of Washington yesterday for the final weekend push before Tuesday, when Democrats, Republicans and Statehood Party members will nominate candidates to an array of offices in what will be the most complete reshuffling of power since home rule.

With near-record registration prompting forecasts of moderate turnout, voters will nominate candidates to fill the delegate's seat and council chairmanship; council seats from Wards 1, 3, 5 and 6; an at-large council seat; and new shadow lobbying posts to Congress.

The campaign of Eleanor Holmes Norton, a law professor and former Carter administration official who was considered to be a leading Democratic candidate for delegate, was rocked late Friday by the disclosure that she and her husband owe the District government more than $25,000 in delinquent income taxes and penalties. Norton said she would pay the bill tomorrow.

A catalyst for the top-to-bottom change in local government -- and a political force that hovered over the entire electoral season -- has been Barry, whose Jan. 18 arrest in the Vista Hotel drug sting triggered the game of musical chairs.

Although most of the Democratic mayoral contenders entered the race before Barry's arrest, Fauntroy made his seat available in March when he jumped into the primary contest. Three months later, Barry announced that he would not seek a fourth term. After a jury convicted him of a single misdemeanor count of cocaine possession, he left the Democratic Party to run for a council seat.

Barry's trial was a two-month ordeal for many District residents, but especially so for the city's political establishment and the mayoral candidates, who suffered a virtual news blackout while the local media devoted its attention to the mayor's court proceeding.

The campaign, which had been moving by fits and starts since January, seemed to stop in its tracks during the trial, the candidates effectively frozen in place. Ray was comfortably ahead in endorsements and fund-raising, with Jarvis gaining some momentum, particularly from the endorsement in early June by a major gay political club.

Clarke used the summer to husband his money, while Dixon sharpened the outsider themes she first tested with her early call for Barry's resignation. The trial put a damper on the candidacy of Fauntroy, who was upstaged several times by the mayor himself, a one-time political ally.

The dynamic of the campaign changed dramatically after the Barry trial ended Aug. 10. Ray, who has raised a record $1.1 million for the election, quickly put a second round of commercials on television, practically drowning out all four of his opponents, who lacked the money for such a high-profile public relations effort.

The others got their voices heard in other arenas, though. Most launched advertising campaigns on relatively inexpensive radio or cable television or both, and reached voters through the many forums held in nearly every corner of the District.

Dixon, who raised the least money of any major mayoral candidate, seemed the big beneficiary of heightened voter and media interest after the trial. She performed well in the four debates that were televised citywide and picked up the editorial endorsement of The Washington Post, copies of which she distributed by the tens of thousands.

Ray won the endorsement of the Washington Times and the Washington Afro-American, whose city editor resigned last week to protest what she described as the paper's unfair treatment of Clarke's candidacy.

The initial Post endorsement of Dixon and subsequent editorials on her behalf constituted a major turning point in her campaign because they suggested to many voters that she is a credible candidate. As Judith Claire, a 51-year-old artist, put it: "I did like Sharon Pratt Dixon from the beginning, but I wasn't sure she could win . . . . I'm ready to take a chance more than I was before."

Dixon and Jarvis, her chief competitor in the race to overtake Ray, still have obstacles to overcome.

Neither candidate has had the money needed to compete effectively against Ray on commercial television, an expensive but potentially decisive tool to reach voters in the crucial final phase of a political campaign. Nor do Dixon or Jarvis expect to match the breadth of Ray's organization, a citywide structure that includes paid staff members, as well as labor union members, several leading ministers and top lieutenants in Barry's political army.

All the candidates have their own pockets of strength. For instance, Jarvis reaped some key Barry supporters after the mayor ruled out reelection; she has been endorsed by Effi Barry, the mayor's wife, and appeared yesterday on the campaign trail with R. Kenneth Mundy, the mayor's defense attorney.

Jarvis also enjoys the support of a relatively small but highly energetic group of gay activists, members of a community that played an instrumental role in Barry's first mayoral victory. She also has strongly courted the District's elderly.

Fauntroy, a leading figure in the early civil rights movement and pastor of a Baptist church in Shaw since the late 1950s, can expect support from many churchgoing Washingtonians, as well as those residents accustomed to voting for him during his nearly two decades in Congress.

With a strong political base in Ward 1 and 16 years on the council, the past eight in the citywide post of chairman, Clarke should do better than the meager showing he has made in recent polls. For instance, during a stop last week in predominantly black Ward 5, Ray told reporters that his chief adversary there was Clarke.

In interviews last week, Ray said his own polling showed him leading the other four Democrats in all eight District wards, but noted that several of those battlegrounds had significant numbers of undecided voters. Ray said he most feared a sudden groundswell for Dixon, but added that his polling indicated no such movement and that some undecideds were sure to break his way on Tuesday.

Despite spirited attacks by Fauntroy and Jarvis about the large contributions he accepted from real estate developers, Ray clearly has made an impact with his advertising blitz, according to voters.

Wanda Tillar, 24, a Northeast Washington resident who runs a store on Capitol Hill, says that with Barry out of the picture, "It's a tough decision for me. I'm so used to having Marion Barry running."

Tillar said that although she was undecided about her choice, she was leaning towards Ray. "That's all I see on TV -- John Ray, John Ray, John Ray this, John Ray that.

"He looks like he's more for young people," Tillar said of Ray, who was shown in one commercial speaking to a group of young boys. "He goes out with young people and shows that he cares."

Staff writer Steve Twomey contributed to this report.