COLEMAN YOUNG, the longest-serving black mayor in the nation, is facing the toughest reelection of his career and yet political analysts here still see Detroit's embattled mayor winning an unprecedented fifth term. Mr. Young's stiffest challenge is coming from United States Rep. John Conyers, a 25-year Democratic congressman from the city's northwest side, whose campaign until now has appeared somewhat disorganized. However, Mr. Conyers, whose entrance into the race stunned most political observers, has turned this normally one-sided nonpartisan election into the city's first serious mayoral race since Young was first elected in 1973.
Conyers was never considered, nor had he hinted, as being a challenger to Young until a few weeks before the late July filing deadline.
Many of the groups that have traditionally supported Young are now backing other candidates, and last week Conyers received the endorsement of the Detroit Free Press while Thomas Barrow - a candidate who lost to Young four years ago - was endorsed by the Detroit News.
So far, Young has managed to keep his normally well-run campaign in order and has used the issue of race to keep his challengers from gaining ground. He has accused his critics and opponents of trying to break up black unity even though the city is 70 percent black and all his leading contenders are black.
Although there are 13 people running for the mayor's seat in the Sept. 12 primary, the serious contenders are Conyers, longtime city council president Erma Henderson, and Mr. Barrow, an accountant.
``Anyone who thought black politics in Detroit was monolithic was wrong,'' says Jack Casey, president of Casey Communications Management, a longtime Detroit-area political analyst and public relations executive. ``It took unity to elect the first black mayor in Detroit and in other cities. It's been a maturation process and different opinions have emerged. They (the candidates) all share strong commitments to the black community but they have differences, and some of them are personal.''
Young has won his three previous challenges handily. He beat a popular councilman in his second term, a city accountant in the third term, and Barrow in 1985.
Each time, Young ran a highly financed, machine-like campaign that focused attacks on the news media and white establishment and generally ignored his challengers.
But since 1985, Young has suffered several major embarrassments that many feel have made him vulnerable, along with his age. He is 71.
Earlier this year, the city was shocked when a former appointee of the mayor filed a paternity suit against Young claiming he was the father of her six-year-old son. Young contested the suit and claimed he did not believe he was the father, but three sophisticated blood tests later proved he was.
Last year, attention focused on a land deal where the city paid a group of businessmen $40 million for their property that appraisers said was worth only $4 million. A federal grand jury is still investigating that deal.
More important, Young, who convinced Detroiters to back just about anything he wanted during his tenure as mayor, has lost several important referendums recently. Last year, voters turned down his long desire to have casino gambling in the city, and residents also approved legislation allowing the city council a smaller majority to overrule mayoral vetoes.
IF he had to bet today, however, Mr. Casey, like many other analysts here, says he would put his money on the mayor. Casey says Young's attributes are that he has a strong personality, is clearly defined, and has been credited with bringing many other blacks into prominent public and private positions throughout the city.
``I think that having a mayor in the office for 16 years - there's a lot of people who feel it's a time for a change,'' Casey says. ``That's one of the hazards of being in office for 16 years; Young has had problems the challengers didn't have to solve.''
Even though Conyers, Ms. Henderson, and Barrow are going to make this a tough race, Young's biggest asset is his nearly $5 million campaign war chest. While the other candidates are scraping to put together a couple $100,000, Young has launched a slick television campaign and has centered on the theme of the mayor being made of ``the right stuff.''
``And you can't overlook the incumbent's advantage,'' says one longtime Democratic party leader. ``You can't overlook the point that everyone has an opinion on him. But John Conyers has had the ability to galvanize people to the degree that they will be disenchanted with the mayor and that's going to make this race competitive.''
Of the other candidates, Henderson's campaign has been so low-key that many have asked if she were still in the race. Yet no one is counting the council president out because she has gathered more votes than anyone - including the mayor - in Detroit's last three general elections.
Oddly, many believe Barrow could end up as Young's challenger in the Nov. 7 general election. Some political analysts feel Young, Conyers, and Henderson will divide up the traditional black vote while Barrow will attract a significant number of young and middle-income blacks along with many whites.
Charles Parrish, a political science professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, says this year's election is healthy for Detroiters. Besides getting a better response from city departments to citizen complaints, Dr. Parrish says voters will have some real alternatives to look at for the mayor's office.
``If Conyers can get the money and stay on the attack he will make it a close race,'' Parrish says. ``Conyers has very little to lose: He doesn't have to give up his seat, and he's a good deal younger than the mayor. If the mayor beats him, in what many believe is (Young's) last race, Conyers will be the leading candidate for next election.''