CALGARY, FEB. 25 -- If either Katarina Witt of East Germany or Debi Thomas of the United States was going to give in to the other, it would have been tonight. Instead, they made the short program into a compelling middle chapter in their pursuit of the figure skating gold medal at the Winter Olympics.

Thomas, the challenger and 1986 world champion, took a narrow overall lead over Witt, the defending Olympic and reigning world champion, on the strength of a nearly flawless New Wave program at the Saddledome. But Witt received the higher scores from six of the nine judges for her charming Broadway routine to win this portion, which counted for 20 percent of the overall score.

While it was a brief and partial victory for Thomas, Witt's performance and higher marks might have been an indication of what is to come. The judges clearly favored the established champion, while their scores for Thomas received prolonged boos.

That means Thomas may have a difficult time outscoring Witt Saturday in the long program, which counts for 50 percent. Whoever wins that event will win the gold medal.

"I knew coming into the competition that it would be that way," Thomas said. "I knew I would have to do my absolute best. It was nice the audience booed."

The two-minute short pieces are not particularly telling when compared to the four-minute long program, or even the compulsories, which were worth 30 percent on Wednesday. But the short program has been a crucial portion for each skater in their previous two meetings at the world championships, and it was again tonight.

It consists of seven required elements -- three jumps, three spins, and serpentine footwork. Errors on those elements had allowed each to beat the other before. In 1986 in Geneva, Witt stumbled out of her mandatory combination jump and could not make up for it in the long program, conceding her title. In 1987 in Cincinnati, Thomas tripped out of a required double axel, allowing Witt to win.

Despite that history, and the fact that Witt watched from the railing after skating before her, Thomas was unconcerned as she skated to music of the rock group Dead or Alive in a black and silver unitard. She got height on her jumps and solid landings to earn higher technical marks from six judges. She got three 5.9s out of a possible 6.0, four more of 5.8, and two of 5.7.

For a moment it appeared that Thomas had scored higher than Witt, who is known for her free skating and is rarely beaten in this category. But then Thomas' artistic marks came, and they were significantly lower, and drawing the boos and an aggravated, "Oh, no," from coach Alex McGowan. Later, he wondered if the judges weren't already set in their minds as to the outcome.

"It hurts me when I see her skate so well, but being dropped by the judges," McGowan said. "I am concerned about Saturday in the long program, and that no matter what she does, the die is cast. It worries me."

Not that Witt was necessarily undeserving. She had fallen twice in practice on her combination jumps, not a good state of affairs, but she did not waver tonight. Skating confidently in bright blue and silver to a Broadway medley that included a tap dance to the strains of "Hello Dolly" to end things, she hit the troublesome combination perfectly and received relieved hugs from coach Jutta Muller.

Her marks for technical merit were four 5.8s, four 5.7s and a 5.6. For artistic presentation she received solid 5.9s, with just a 5.8 from the U.S. judge.

"I did all the jumps and I'm very happy with this," Witt told ABC. "There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders, but it was good for me."

Thomas and Witt had trailed Kira Ivanova of the Soviet Union in second and third place, respectively, after the compulsory figures Wednesday. That was not unforeseen, since Ivanova has led compulsories in the last three world championships, only to finish out of the top three.

Tonight, Ivanova stumbled on the landing of her first combination. She received marks from 4.9 to 5.2, to put her in fourth place.

Elizabeth Manley of Canada, a top echelon skater who was fourth after compulsories but has had problems with nerves in major competitions, had none this time. She received a series of 5.8s and 5.7s to move into third place.

Jill Trenary of Minnetonka, Minn., who was good enough to take a national championship from Thomas in 1987, was in fifth place. That was identical to her position after the compulsories, and keeps her in medal contention.

Caryn Kadavy of Erie, Pa., like Trenary a product of Peggy Fleming mentor Carlo Fassi, moved from seventh place after the compulsories into sixth.

A somewhat unexpected performance came from Midori Ito of Japan, an 18-year-old with great leaping ability. She was fourth tonight, but only eighth overall after horrible compulsories.

Performances by those in the middle of things raised the point that Witt and Thomas have been trying to suggest all week: they are not the only skaters here and do not have exclusive rights to the medals.

"It's not that we're pushed aside and no one thinks of us," Trenary said. "We're worth thinking about. But Katarina is the world champion and Debi has won one, too."

In the anticipated long program, Witt and Thomas will compare their styles by skating dueling routines to Bizet's "Carmen," coincidentally choosing the same music.

"It's going to be a battle," Thomas said, "To see who can stand up the longest."