WASHINGTON -- Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. is telling political supporters that he personally favors one of the five Democratic candidates to succeed him, but his private endorsement may not affect the city's primary vote tomorrow -- a vote that will be decisive in selecting Washington's next mayor.
Besides, none of the five Democrats who wants his job has been, as one political observer put it, "down on hands and knees, begging for his endorsement."
It is not at all clear whether a whispered word of support from Mr. Barry, coming after his spectacular trial on charges of drug possession and perjury, would help or hurt any of those seeking to succeed him.
Although Mr. Barry has continued to insist publicly that he does not intend to endorse a candidate, he is said to be telling supporters privately that Charlene Drew Jarvis, a veteran Washington politician, is his choice for the Democratic nomination for mayor. And in a city where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans almost 9-to-1, the Democratic nomination virtually guarantees election.
"Barry told me that Jarvis is his favorite," said one of the mayor's closest supporters, who asked to remain anonymous. "I'm absolutely certain that's the way he feels."
Several attempts to elicit a reaction from Mrs. Jarvis to the dubious gift that Mr. Barry appeared to be bestowing on her met with no response from her campaign office.
In the aftermath of the mayor's trial and his decision not to run for a fourth term, the scramble for the Democratic nomination has not produced a dominant candidate for his job. In a city that has been raciallydivided for years, all but one of the major mayoral candidates are black.
John Ray, 47, who has been an at-large member of the District of Columbia City Council since 1979 and who is making his third run for mayor, is generally regarded as leading the contenders. Mrs. Jarvis, 49, a member of the council since 1979, appears to be running second.
Besides nominating candidates for a new mayor, Washington voters also select tomorrow candidates for the first new City Council chairman in eight years, for two at-large seats and four ward seats on the 12-member council, for the first new non-voting district delegate to Congress in 19 years and -- in a new elective wrinkle -- for a "shadow" delegation of two senators and a representative to lobby Congress for statehood.
Perhaps the most certain victor tomorrow will be the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who is seeking Democratic nomination to be one of the shadow senators.
Nothing is so certain in the race for Democratic mayoral nominee.
In a poll of 600 registered voters reported yesterday by Washington television station WJLA, Mr. Ray was the front-runner, favored by 24 percent of those surveyed. Mrs. Jarvis was tied for second with Sharon Pratt Dixon, a former corporate executive and Democratic Party activist, each drawing 17 percent.
Next was David A. Clarke, the City Council chairman and the lone white candidate, who got the support of 9 percent of those polled.
Last, with 8 percent, was the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, who chose to abandon his post as delegate to Congress after 19 years to seek the mayor's job -- and has been running a campaign generally regarded as surprisingly ineffective.
Maurice T. Turner Jr., the city's former police chief, is unopposed forthe Republican nomination.
Compared with a survey published Aug. 31 by the Washington Post, Mr. Ray's lead decreased by 9 percentage points in the WJLA survey, while Mrs. Jarvis' support remained unchanged.
Perhaps just as significant, the television poll showed that a full one-quarter of those surveyed were undecided or had no preference.
For the first time in two decades, Washington voters will go to the polls in a primary in which Mr. Barry's name will not be on the Democratic nominating ballots.
Last month Mr. Barry was convicted in U.S. District Court on one drug-possession count and acquitted on another, while the jury deadlocked on nine remaining drug-possession counts and three felony counts of perjury.
At a hearing Sept. 17 -- six days after the primary -- the mayor will hear whether he is to be retried on the counts that caused a hung jury.
Before the trial, he announced that he would not seek a fourth term as mayor. After the trial, he said he will run -- as an independent -- for an at-large seat on the City Council.
Although Mr. Barry generally has been regarded as still having the support of as much as one-fourth to one-third of Washington's Democratic voters, the Post survey found that nearly 60 percent of those in its sample said they would not vote for him -- even as a candidate for the council seat.
Yet, with the absence of Mr. Barry and the certainty of many changes in the city's major leadership posts, some Washington observers are talking about a revolution in the city's political structure -- at a time when the city faces deep debt problems, an epidemic of drug use and murders, and the racial polarization fueled by Mr. Barry's trial.