Democratic mayoral nominee Sharon Pratt Dixon denounced attacks by Republican rival Maurice T. Turner Jr. yesterday as an attempt to exploit the cruelest kinds of class divisions in Washington, while Turner ridiculed as simplistic Dixon's proposals for reducing the city's escalating homicide rate.

Dixon, whom Turner acknowledges as the front-runner, said her proposals for curbing drug-related violence would lead to a "decided decrease" in the city's homicide rate within six months.

The two major candidates in next Tuesday's mayoral election clashed on a variety of issues during a luncheon meeting with reporters and editors of The Washington Post, including Turner's relationship with Mayor Marion Barry during his eight years as D.C. police chief and the relative worth of the minority outreach programs of Dixon's former employer, Potomac Electric Power Co.

Dixon and Turner agreed on other topics, both saying they believe the District is racially polarized and both endorsing the six-month prison term Barry received last week as a fair sentence for his conviction on a misdemeanor count of cocaine possession.

One of the sharpest exchanges between the two candidates came during a discussion about the tone of the campaign, which has been punctuated by Turner's assertions that Dixon would be soft on crime and that she is insensitive to the District's poorest residents.

Dixon, pointing to her modest origins as the daughter of two federal government employees, said, "Mr. Turner and his party have tried to figure out whatever niche they think will work, no matter whether it's fair or not.

"We all came along in pretty much the same circumstances," Dixon added. "The notion that somehow, because ultimately I went to law school and ended up being a corporate executive, that I'm any less of the community . . . is meant to play at the cruelest kind of thing.

"People are tired of that kind of negative politics," Dixon said.

Turner, who has described Dixon as the product of a "silver spoon" environment, sought again to contrast his upbringing with hers, saying, "I'm just letting the voters see what it is. You know, I've been in the streets of this city all my life.

"I'm a part of this city," said Turner, who, like Dixon, is a third-generation Washingtonian. "It's in my bones . . . . I've scratched for everything I've had."

Although one of his major campaign themes has been an assertion that Dixon would not be tough enough in dealing with the District's soaring homicide rate, Turner said voters should not construe that as a suggestion that Dixon's sex makes her unsuited for the mayor's job.

"I've never brought up gender," Turner said. "The only thing I said was that I thought she was soft on crime. I didn't say that women or ladies were soft on crime, because certainly I've walked shoulder to shoulder with some of the most professional police officers, female police officers, who I think are strong on crime."

Dixon said during the luncheon that she views many of Turner's messages as sex-oriented. The Turner campaign is airing radio commercials in which a woman announcer says twice that the former chief is "the best man for the job" of mayor.

On crime and drug-related violence, Dixon said that as mayor she would order more community-based foot patrols by police and establish recreational programs "that will pull a lot of people off of the streets."

Dixon predicted that after six months of after-hours recreation programs and new, neighborhood-based foot patrols, District residents would see a "decided decrease" in the city's homicide rate, which reached records in the last two years and may do so again this year.

Turner scoffed at Dixon's assertion, adding that residents would "fool ourselves" to accept such "simplistic solutions."

"I don't think midnight basketball is going to solve crime," said Turner, who spent most of his professional career, 32 years, on the city's police force.

He also dismissed her call for new foot patrols as a "feel-good" proposal, saying that such patrols are the "most expensive and least effective" way to fight street crime in urban areas.

Dixon criticized Turner for not standing up to Barry during the years he was chief and demanding additional resources and personnel to contain the rise in violent crime. Turner has said he did seek extra resources but could not overcome Barry's resistance to major increases in the police department budget.

Dixon said that as chief, Turner was too deferential to Barry.

"If it's a point of serious concern that impacts the whole public policy direction, and you feel that person is not setting the right tone -- if you don't think that person is bringing a real commitment to it -- then I think you have a responsibility to force their hand, either that or publicly disassociate yourself," Dixon said.

"Do you believe that applies to Pepco?" interjected Turner, who went on to criticize Dixon for not prodding Pepco into setting aside 10 percent of its business for minority contractors.

Dixon, who worked for the utility for 12 years, retiring as a vice president last year, replied that she helped create Pepco's office of minority business development, which she said won the praise of D.C. utility regulators and consumer groups alike.

"The only thing Pepco did is put business offices in Southeast and Northeast so that people could pay their bills," Turner shot back.

Offered Dixon: "Pepco is hardly perfect, but Pepco has moved a great distance in the time since I was there."

Both candidates said they hope to foster "public-private" partnerships to help the distressed local economy, with Dixon proposing an industrial park to lure companies through tax incentives and Turner calling for "economic development clusters" to rejuvenate some of the District's ailing commercial corridors.

The two candidates also said the District government's role in economic development had its limits. "Government can't do everything for everybody," Turner said, and Dixon said emphatically that her public-private endeavors would "not be run by government bureaucrats."

Turner and Dixon said the prison sentence imposed on Barry last Friday by U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson is a just one.

Dixon said the sentence, which some Washington residents have said is too harsh, reflects a change in the nation's tolerance for illegal drug use by public officials.

Turner said Jackson held Barry "more accountable than he did other people," adding that that was appropriate because public officials "should be held to a stricter accountability."

Turner, who throughout the campaign has declined to release his income tax returns for the last several years, said he would disclose his annual returns if he wins the election.

Dixon, who pledged this summer to issue copies of her tax returns regardless of whether Turner did, said yesterday that she would do so only if the former chief released his.