Vincent Gray joins his education team in July, announcing test score progress. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Twice now, in messages to supporters, Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s incipient reelection campaign has referred to next year’s contest as the “Education Election.”

That was the title of a Dec. 10 missive from campaign manager Chuck Thies: “Vince will not yield to special interest groups with political muscle, and he certainly is not impressed by candidates whose education policy goes no further than a bumper sticker,” he wrote a day after Gray won a less-than-warm reception from teachers union activists who once embraced him.

“Education Election” was again featured in a fundraising appeal sent Thursday and signed by Gray, touting a new analysis showing outsize growth by the D.C. Public Schools among big-city school systems. “There is an important election on April 1, 2014,” he wrote. “Have no doubt, the progress we’ve made on education is at stake.”

So is “Education Election” the nucleus of Gray’s campaign messaging? Will his stay-the-course approach to school reform become the cornerstone of his reelection pitch? If so, it would be a heap on a growing pile of irony considering former mayor Adrian M. Fenty made stay-the-course-on-education the centerpiece of his own unsuccessful 2010 reelection run.

But Thies said Friday that “Education Election” is only one of the themes the campaign intends to promote in the next three-plus months. “This is an education election,” he said. “It’s also an economic election. It’s a lot of different things.”

The recent education focus, Thies said, is intended to draw a distinction between Gray and his competitors. Restaurateur Andy Shallal has sketched out a appreciably different course, less focused on standardized testing and accountability regimes that have bloomed in recent years, but other candidates have been less aggressive in critiquing the work of school chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. (The exception is independent David Catania, who is pledging to run an education-focused campaign should he decide to contest the November general election.)

While it may be an education election or a economic election, Thies said he did not think it was an ethics election — which is what many of Gray’s challengers are counting on, considering the lingering federal investigation into Gray’s last campaign.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a defining theme in this election,” he said. “I’ve been all over the city since I took this job. The No. 1 concerns are education, jobs and affordable housing.”

He added, “I think every election should be run ethically, and that’s what we’re doing.”