The 1990 election season in the Washington region was supposed to be a yawn.

But that was before Virginia found itself awash in mud. Or Maryland became a haven for write-in candidates. Or the District saw its mayor convicted.

Area voters will go to the polls Tuesday in an upside-down political landscape, where widespread cynicism, ethics controversies and never-say-die campaigns by defeated or tarnished incumbents seem to be the norm.

In the District, Eleanor Holmes Norton is struggling to overcome questions about her ethics, and Mayor Marion Barry is trying to salvage his career with a bid for D.C. Council.

In Maryland, Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer is seeking reelection by write-in and 1st District Rep. Roy P. Dyson (D-Md.) is straining under lingering allegations of hypocrisy and impropriety. In Virginia, Rep. Stan Parris faces his toughest challenge in almost a decade, while two other House Republicans also are threatened.

"We call it the year of living dangerously," said Alan M. Secrest, a Democratic pollster working for Parris's opponent, Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr. "There's a mounting frustration among voters. What we're really seeing is a challenge to incumbents in both parties."

Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said, "The voters are surly. They were surly before they knew who to blame it on.

"In a year when people are already concerned about politicians, basic honesty and integrity is important," Sabato said. "You're hearing so much about ethics in so many races in the Washington area, it tends to magnify the issue."

Analysts say the tone for Tuesday's races was set in September, when voters in the District and Maryland rejected several high-profile incumbents and front-runners. They say public restlessness has increased in the wake of the acrimonious federal budget crisis and continuing bad news about the region's economy.

Several of Tuesday's odds-on favorites were September's long shots, self-proclaimed outsiders or reformers who challenged the status quo.

In the contest for District mayor, Democrat Sharon Pratt Dixon hopes to capitalize on calls for change and her party's huge voter registration advantage over Republican Maurice T. Turner Jr., the city's former police chief. In the Montgomery County executive's race, Democrat Neal Potter is looking to best Kramer's write-in effort and Republican Albert Ceccone. Potter upset Kramer in the Democratic primary.

But perhaps the most powerful factor in the region's elections is ethics. Candidates in the District, Maryland and Virginia have all come under intense scrutiny, and polls have shown that allegations of wrongdoing are influencing voters' choices.

Barry, recently sentenced for cocaine possession, is running as an independent for D.C. Council in a field that includes Statehood Party incumbent Hilda H.M. Mason, Democrat Linda W. Cropp and independent Jim Harvey. Although Barry was initially considered a leading contender for the job despite his legal problems, his chances have appeared to diminish somewhat in recent days.

Norton still leads Republican Harry M. Singleton in the race for D.C. delegate to Congress, but has spent weeks attempting to explain why she and her husband failed to pay personal income taxes to the District for the last eight years. Singleton admitted last week that he smoked marijuana while he was serving in the Reagan administration.

In eastern Maryland's 1st Congressional District, Dyson survived a tough Democratic primary and is locked in a head-to-head race with Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest. Two years ago, Dyson's top aide committed suicide after questions about his management of Dyson's office, and more recently, Dyson has returned more than $10,000 in contributions to defense contractors implicated in a Pentagon purchasing scandal.

Another Maryland Democrat, Prince George's County Council member Anthony J. Cicoria, dropped his reelection bid last week after being convicted of stealing campaign money and lying on his tax forms. Party leaders, scrambling to organize a write-in campaign for Stephen J. Del Giudice, who was defeated in the September primary for the council, held a rally in Hyattsville yesterday that drew 200 people. The only Republican contender briefly spent time in a mental institution.

In Northern Virginia's 8th Congressional District, Parris has emphasized Moran's conviction on a conflict-of-interest charge in 1984. Moran resigned from the Alexandria City Council after casting a vote that aided a developer with whom he had a business relationship and repaying the city for a trip to Europe during which he conducted personal business. Moran has accused Parris of using "racist tactics" in past campaigns.

Public disgust with government and incumbents in general also appears to be influencing several races. Virginia Rep. D. French Slaughter Jr., a Republican from the 7th District, is in a closer-than-expected race, largely because of the budget crisis. Even Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, considered a prohibitive favorite over Republican William S. Shepard, is encountering more resistance than expected.

Voters in Maryland and Virginia are considering several proposals that would have a direct effect on how much tax money their governments can raise, and in both places anti-tax sentiment could prevail.

In Montgomery County, four initiatives that would limit local tax collections are on the ballot, while Virginia voters are being asked to approve a new kind of bond issue for transportation improvements.

"People are frightened on fiscal issues and on all economic issues," said Stanton J. Gildenhorn, a Montgomery lawyer and Democratic activist. "They are concerned about spending of all kinds, particularly when they are afraid their personal incomes might suffer."

But this year, as in every election year, some races fit no larger pattern, turning on personality disputes, local issues or political quirks.

In Prince George's County, State's Attorney Alex Williams is facing Arthur A. "Bud" Marshall Jr., whom he unseated in a Democratic primary four years ago.

And along with the write-in campaigns for Kramer and Del Giudice, write-ins are being waged by or for three Maryland Democrats who lost bids for the state Senate in September's primary, Sens. Margaret C. Schweinhaut and Frank Shore of Montgomery and former senator Tommie Broadwater of Prince George's.

"To say that {four write-in campaigns} is unusual is an understatement," Gildenhorn said. "But I don't think it means anything." Staff writer Retha Hill contributed to this report.