D.C. Democratic mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser during a debate at NewsChannel 8. Also attending were Tommy Wells, Mayor Vincent Gray and Jack Evans. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Senior Regional Correspondent

Here’s what momentum looks like:

Knocking on rowhouse doors Tuesday afternoon on a one-block street in the Eckington neighborhood in Northeast Washington, surging mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser easily drew promises of support from seven out of eight District residents with whom she talked. The eighth was undecided.

Nearly all said they had backed Mayor Vince Gray four years ago. Now they were unanimous (including the undecided one) in urging the mayor’s ouster in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

“You got me!” Jackie Whitfield, 50, a federal government worker, said when she recognized Bowser on her porch. “I just think D.C. needs a change.”

A few doors away, Jeffrey Clincy, 49, an accountant, said, “I want someone who’s going to clean up D.C.”

Chantay Cooper, 46, didn’t commit until she’d questioned Bowser about how she’d expand youth recreation centers in low-income neighborhoods.

“I was very happy with her answer . . . because she already knew about the existing problem,” Cooper said.

It’s possible the residents were just saying what the candidate wanted to hear. Nobody knows what they’ll do in the voting booth — or if they’ll go to the polls.

Still, the responses were in line with the pro-Bowser trend seen in this week’s Washington Post poll. It showed that the Ward 4 D.C. Council member’s support has doubled since January, while Gray’s has not moved.

The block-walking also illustrated Bowser’s passion for grass-roots politics. She likes to meet voters face-to-face, and is overseeing what seems to be the most effective campaign of any of the eight primary candidates.

The worry about her, as I discussed in my March 9 column, is that she might be less effective running the city than she is at running a political organization. She hasn’t been a standout in seven years on the council and doesn’t have close relations with the other members.

Bowser appears to preserve some emotional distance from people. She maintains an attitude that she calls “businesslike” but critics see as aloof.

She can be testy when challenged. She pushed back when I suggested the campaign was coming together as her advisers planned.

“It’s coming together as I planned,” she said, emphasizing the first-person pronoun. “I lay out the strategy for all my campaigns.”

Bowser is also relentlessly “on message.” She repeats the same talking points with individual voters and crowds: a fresh start on ethics, accelerated education reform, economic development that doesn’t push out the middle class or poor.

But Bowser seems to have learned the importance of maintaining direct contact with voters from the bad experience of her mentor, former mayor Adrian Fenty. Gray thrashed him four years ago largely because African American voters felt Fenty was neglecting them.

Partly to defuse criticisms of her association with Fenty, Bowser has walked sidewalks seeking support in predominantly black neighborhoods. It seems to be working, as the poll showed her to be the candidate with the strongest appeal across racial lines.

The poll puts Bowser in the enviable position of being the only challenger with a chance of beating Gray at a time when six out of 10 voters view the mayor as untrustworthy because of the 2010 campaign scandal.

The primary contest is hardly over. Bowser’s three-point advantage over Gray was within the poll’s margin of error. Also, Gray’s supporters are more certain of their choice than Bowser’s.

On the other hand, Bowser seems likely to attract more support in the campaign’s closing days as anti-Gray voters rally behind her as the best bet to oust the mayor.

Lucy Hinton, 28, a theater worker, said in Eckington that she has favored businessman Andy Shallal but placed a higher priority on replacing the incumbent.

“I would vote for Andy if I could, but I don’t think he has a chance,” Hinton said.

Signs of a Bowser bandwagon were emerging even before the poll was released Tuesday. About 200 supporters crowded a “meet and greet” with the candidate Monday evening at the RedRocks pizzeria on H Street in Northeast.

“All eight wards!” they chanted, referring to Bowser’s emphasis on competing throughout the city.

People in the crowd — black and white, 20-somethings to senior citizens — jostled for a chance to shake hands with Bowser and take “selfies” with her.

Attorney Kevin Wrege was struck by the number of new faces. He said, “I’ve been working with her as a volunteer for a year, and I don’t recognize a third of these folks.”

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.