WILL Marion Barry, once thought to be politically finished following a 1990 drug conviction, again become mayor of the District of Columbia?
Heading into the final weekend before Tuesday's all-important Democratic primary, the nation's capital is abuzz with speculation over who will win. The latest polls show former Mayor Barry in a dead heat for the lead with City Councilman John Ray. The outcome, say political analysts, hinges on one factor: turnout.
''If there's heavy turnout among black voters, especially the poorer blacks who generally don't turn out, then Barry wins,'' says Del Ali, vice-president of Mason-Dixon political research firm. If not, then Mr. Ray wins.
In a Mason-Dixon poll of 413 D.C. Democrats likely to vote, taken Sept. 1-3, 35 percent said they would vote for Ray and 32 percent for Barry. The incumbent mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, whose tenure has been plagued by perceptions of weak management and a growing financial crisis, got 18 percent. That poll alarmed the District's better-off residents, both black and white, and boosted the Ray campaign with support from people who may not feel great enthusiasm for the soft-spoken 15-year council member -- but see him as the best hope for blocking Barry's self-described bid for ''redemption.''
Some registered Republicans, even high-profile ones like conservative columnist Robert Novak, switched their party affiliation so they could vote in the Democratic primary.
In D.C., Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1, and the victor in the Democratic mayoral primary -- who can win with a plurality -- has always gone on to win the general election in the 20 years since D.C. was granted limited home rule.
James Gibson, a former top D.C. official now working with a business group on a plan for the city's future, says he ''expected a more dramatic shift to Ray'' as voters focused more closely on the race. Now, with Barry seen as having more solid support than the other two leading contenders, Mr. Gibson sees a ''growing prospect'' that Barry could pull it off.
Ron Walters, chairman of the political-science department at Howard University, disagrees. He says Barry has peaked and that his chances of winning are ''slim to none. The only way (Barry can win) is if the white vote stays home or is badly split,'' says Professor Walters.
Barry's appeal remains a mystery to many whites. But to poor blacks, he represents hope -- someone whose life fell apart, who was set up in a sting by law-enforcement officials for a fall, who paid his dues, and who has redeemed himself. Add to the mix a talent for street politics, and he makes a strong candidate.
According to the Mason-Dixon poll, D.C. whites back Ray by 68 percent, with 17 percent backing Kelly and 1 percent for Barry. Among blacks, 48 percent support Barry, 19 percent support Ray, and 18 percent back Kelly.
Such data suggest a deep racial division in the city, which is two-thirds black. In fact, Mr. Ali of Mason-Dixon surmises that Barry may have closet supporters who aren't willing to tell pollsters they back him.
Barry recognized early on that the key to the primary was turnout. All summer his troops have scoured the poorer sections of the city, signing up new voters and drumming up enthusiasm for a man whose three terms as mayor began with biracial support and effective management, but ended in disgrace.
By the end of the voter registration period, D.C.'s Democratic rolls were at record highs, with particularly large increases in low-income areas such as Ward 8, which Barry currently represents in the city council.
Among Barry's supporters, it appears not to matter that with him at the helm once again, Capitol Hill might have trouble taking the city seriously. Congress holds veto power over city laws, including its budget. TV comedians are already having a field day with the Barry candidacy.
For Mayor Kelly, the news only gets grimmer. D.C. public schools are opening late due to fire-code violations, and the public housing office has been ordered into federal receivership. That leaves John Ray and his middle-class image. And on his fourth try at the job, his biggest selling point is that he's not the other guys. For once, that may be enough.