The husband of Eleanor Holmes Norton pleaded with voters yesterday not to punish his wife for the family's failure to file D.C. tax returns for the past seven years, as part of a last-minute media effort to limit damage to her campaign for D.C. delegate.

Edward Norton told reporters that it was his decision not to file the family's tax returns and his wife knew nothing about it. He said it would be a "tragedy" if the matter "should come back to haunt her."

"I am the one who's the villain in this," said Edward Norton, a lawyer and former chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. "I delayed, and then it became a matter of, well, 'I'll get to it tomorrow.' "

The admission came during an emotional news conference by the Nortons and capped a daylong damage-control effort on the eve of the Democratic primary in which Norton and her supporters attempted to portray her as the victim of a smear campaign. Some supporters sought to portray the issue as a media-generated effort to discredit a strong black woman.

"No dirty tricks can drive Eleanor Holmes Norton out of this race," Norton told a rally at Freedom Plaza. "Those who thought they could chase this woman out of this race with some anonymous faxes after the close of business Friday don't know a fighter when they see one."

By the end of the day, several important questions were left unanswered, including the size of the Nortons' tax liability to the city and federal governments.

According to her financial disclosure statement filed with the House of Representatives, Eleanor Norton earned approximately $328,000 in 1989, including $98,000 in salary from Boston College, where she taught while on leave from Georgetown University Law Center, and fees and honoraria that are not typically subject to withholding. Salary figures for previous years were unavailable.

On Sunday, Norton asserted that about $49,000 was withheld from her salary and paid in D.C. taxes from 1982 to 1989, and that her accountant believes that amount is sufficient to cover her overall tax liability.

With an annual income of $328,000 or more, any of Norton's taxable income in excess of $20,000 would be taxed at the top rate of 9.5 percent rate, under the D.C. Tax Code. Without deductions, that would result in a tax liability of about $30,000 for the 1989 tax year alone.

Donna Brazile, Norton's campaign manager, said late yesterday that Norton's accountants now believe that the taxable portion of Norton's 1989 income, after deductions and losses, is closer to $228,000. Brazile said the accountants are still trying to determine her total tax liability.

Arthur J. Schultz, a local public relations executive and friend of Edward Norton's, said that Norton told him yesterday that although he did not file D.C. tax returns, he made quarterly income tax payments to the D.C. government and Internal Revenue Service to cover his estimated tax liability.

"Mr. Norton told me that a combination of taxes withheld by Mrs. Norton's employers, as well as estimated payments to the federal and D.C. government, are sufficient to cover any tax liability," Schultz said.

During the news conference that was attended by the Nortons' two children, including a daughter with Down's syndrome, Edward Norton said: "To the best of my knowledge, there are no outstanding taxes due . . . . I would ask those of you who are disposed toward Eleanor to not turn away from her because of who I am and what I did."

Linda Grant, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue, said the agency is "reviewing the circumstances" behind the Nortons' failure to file, but had no further comment on the situation. "We don't know what all the facts are," she said.

In the past two years, the department has sent out about 25,000 notices to persons who did not file their tax returns, Grant said. About 300,000 people file returns annually in the District, she said.

Grant said the District participates in a federal "match" program in which it is able to identify local residents filing federal returns who don't file D.C. returns. She said she could not say whether the Nortons' failure to file was discovered by the department prior to Friday's disclosure that the family was delinquent on its 1982 taxes.

As of last week, polls indicated that Norton, a lawyer and former chief of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was comfortably ahead in the race for the Democratic nomination to succeed Del. Walter E. Fauntroy as the city's nonvoting representative in Congress.

But late Friday, someone anonymously faxed to local news organizations a copy of a "certificate of delinquency" indicating that the Nortons failed to pay a $10,000 income tax bill in 1982. As of January 1989, the Nortons owed more than $25,000, including penalties and interest.

Over the weekend, as criticism mounted, Eleanor Norton said she wrote two checks totaling about $28,000 to cover that liability and any subsequent penalties.

Explaining the situation at yesterday's news conference outside the Norton campaign headquarters in Northeast Washington, Edward Norton said that he delayed filing the D.C. return in 1983 because "there was a serious question about what they assessed me."

"The amount of money -- which I knew was not accurate -- was something that I was going to pay, but to be straight up with you, I didn't pay," he said. He said he believed he owed $3,000, but was assessed for $10,000.

"At no point was there ever a cash shortfall problem," he said. "During that entire period, when that tax should have been paid, I had an average balance in my checking account of $6,000."

Norton said he never told his wife of the problem because he always handled the family's taxes. "For the past 25 years we have been married, I have been the one that dealt with the taxes, in part because I have a general bent in that direction," he said, and because "it was easier for me to do those kinds of tasks than it is for somebody who is out here doing all the things that Eleanor does in the public sector."

Norton was asked whether he realized that the problem could jeopardize his wife's candidacy.

He said he did, but added that it was "then a matter of, 'If I make this payment and I'm in some kind of communication with the District government, then somehow or another this becomes a public matter.' "

"It was my intention, as soon as this primary was over, whether she won or lost, to pay the taxes," he said.

Meanwhile, friends and associates of the Nortons's said there had been no indication the couple was having any problem with District tax returns, and they described Edward Norton as a bright, capable lawyer.

"I would expect there's good reason for Eleanor to totally rely on Ed and have never given it {taxes} a second thought," said William Robinson, dean of the District of Columbia law school, a classmate of Edward Norton's at Columbia Law School. "Because he's a consistently reliable person and he does have an extraordinary ability with respect to government regulations and math skills."

Yesterday, some of Norton's supporters sought to blame the media for their candidate's troubles, portraying the weekend news disclosures as an underhanded attack on the front-runner in the race. Eleanor Norton appeared on the WOL morning radio show of Cathy Hughes, who asserted that there was a racially motivated effort underway "not only to knock her out of the box, but to destroy her marriage."

Norton said that while she doesn't believe she is the victim of a "conspiracy," there is concern within the black community about a strong black female with impressive credentials being "subject to ridicule."

Staff writers Mary Ann French and Saundra Torry contributed to this report.