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As the Bowser and Catania campaigns heat up, observers say, the candidates will need to lay out specific plans to distinguish themselves.

“I don’t think that she has really laid out for the electorate to see in any significant way what her administration might look like,” Mr. White said of Ms. Bowser. “How they are going to articulate their differences is unknown at this point.”

Ms. Bowser, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, was endorsed by former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. A former Montgomery County government worker and Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, Ms. Bowser faced criticism on the campaign trail over her lack of executive experience.

“Neither candidate has had the experience of actually managing a $13 billion operation,” said former city administrator Robert C. Bobb, referring to the D.C. budget. “It’s a transition from having oversight to actually being the person responsible. It’s a big step up.”

Mr. Catania, a lawyer known for his prosecutorial style and his quick temper, was first elected to the council in 1997 as a Republican. He left the party in 2004 over Republican leaders’ support of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. During his time on the council, he has overseen the health committee and was a staunch advocate of keeping open United Medical Center, the only hospital east of the Anacostia River. His support fueled a high-profile spat with the city’s chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi.

After an appointment last year to oversee the D.C. Council Committee on Education, Mr. Catania made education reform one of his top priorities. He quit his $240,000-a-year executive job at construction firm M.C. Dean to devote more time to the duties.

As the two candidates work to explain their visions for the District, Mr. Bobb said, he hopes the substance of their plans will be the base of their campaigns.

“I hope it’s a hard and vigorous camp on both sides,” Mr. Bobb said. “Whatever their vision is, I hope they have the tenacity to care about that vision and make that happen through the community process and not sell the citizens on a vision for the sake of being elected.”