Lipscomb's testimony will be crucial, experts said. The well-spoken developer has produced a few lighter moments during grand jury testimony, joking about the steep price of merchandise at Coach, where he shopped for Dixon on a trip to Chicago with her.

Another expected prosecution witness is Howard Dixon, a former city police officer who is not related to the mayor but is a longtime driver and confidant. He's still on the City Hall staff, and prosecutors will say that he picked up one batch of the gift cards Lipscomb donated and then spent them that day at Circuit City on the mayor's behalf, according to court documents.

Finally, Turner is expected to testify. The tall, bearded Baltimore developer, who last year was awarded the largest infrastructure construction tax credit in the city's history, likely will say that he provided gift cards after receiving a call from Dixon and thought they would go to the poor, documents show.

Brown and other legal experts say the theft charges could be the most damaging to Dixon in the eyes of the jurors and citizens of the city.

"It makes it look like you are stealing out of the church plate when it is passed around," Brown said. "Instead of putting money in, you are taking money out."

Recent court filings show that the prosecutors are attempting to put some unnamed "victims" on the stand - needy city residents who would testify that they did not receive gift cards promised to them by City Hall. It is not clear whether the judge will allow those witnesses.

Additionally, prosecutors will have an analyst present financial records to show who bought the gift cards and who spent them.

Aside from a lengthy news conference in January after the indictment was handed up, Dixon's attorneys have said little about their trial strategy. Recent court filings show that they might like the case to resemble a campaign infomercial. Documents they have asked to introduce include news releases and reports touting Dixon's accomplishments, including a 10-year plan to end homelessness, a proposal to address juvenile violence and fliers touting other anti-crime programs.

They want to introduce records showing Dixon's history of contributions to Bethel AME Church, where she worships.

Political analysts say the investigation and the charges have not mortally wounded her career, particularly when compared with recent corruption scandals across the country.

"If these were traffic charges, this is jay-walking versus going 100 miles per hour over the speed limit," said Herb Smith, a professor of political science at McDaniel College. "It is not much ado about nothing. It is much ado about not so much."

Smith said the best indicator of Dixon's strength is that City Council members have not called for her resignation. Though the city is ruled by Democrats, Smith said a serious threat to the mayor would have drawn more rebukes.

"Political ambition trumps party allegiances," he said.

Dixon has deflected most questions about the investigation, all the while trying to build her image as a capable administrator, which observers say fosters support for her throughout the city. In the past year she has led the city through tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts and changed the city's trash pickup and recycling schedules.

Only occasionally has the investigation taken over her public events. A swine-flu event drew questions about a possible plea deal. An informal weekly news conference after a Board of Estimates meeting two weeks ago turned into a rapid-fire inquisition about how the city will run in her absence. An event kicking off the annual Book Fair in September was dominated by inquiries about an article in The Baltimore Sun about the "unexplained cash" that prosecutors said was deposited in her bank accounts.

One potential political risk for her during the trial, which she plans to attend throughout, is being absent if a major event occurs in the city. And the business of running cash-strapped Baltimore cannot be halted for the mayor's trial. The police union has not agreed to her budget-cutting plan. The city's fire and police pension system awaits major changes. There is concern that the pending bid for a slots parlor in Baltimore, a vital future revenue source, is collapsing.

Dixon said her attorneys have worked out an agreement with Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney that would enable her to be informed of any major crisis. She declined to explain how that would work, and her top staff would not say what type of event might prompt them to pull the mayor out of her trial.

In separate interviews, all three deputy mayors took pains to say that city government will move forward despite Dixon's absence.

They said she is often away from the office during the day and that they're accustomed to communicating with her via "decision memos" that lay out issues and recommendations. The memos go in a binder that is placed in "The Bag" - a tote that she takes home each evening, said First Deputy Mayor Andrew B. Frank.

The mayor regularly sends messages to her deputies at night on their BlackBerrys. "From my perspective, the lines of communication will probably remain the same," Frank said.

But those who know Dixon well say she has paid a heavy personal price.

Though the public doesn't see it, former top aide Anthony McCarthy said, the charges have taken a toll that will intensify during the trial.

"She is an intensely private person," McCarthy said. "Almost to a fault. She does not discuss her personal life." She socializes with a small group of friends, he said. "I can only imagine how she is processing having her personal life on such public display."

A common sentiment on the trial - inside and outside City Hall - is an eagerness for resolution.

"I think people want this to be over with," said Denise Espie, a city resident who helped organize a health care town hall at the Enoch Pratt Free Library that Dixon attended last week. "We have to get this over so we can move on."

The crowd at that town hall meeting, mostly made up of black women, stood and applauded when she entered the room. Staff members had passed out little white plastic bags bearing the mayoral logo and full of brochures.

She talked about swine flu vaccinations, disparities in life expectancy in the city's wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods and pride that Johns Hopkins Hospital is located in Baltimore.

"This is a pretty typical day," she told a reporter as she was leaving the event at 8 p.m.

Perhaps it was the late hour or the long day, but when asked what she feared going into the trial, the mayor was more open than usual. She talked not about her political career, her reputation or her finances, but her two children.

"I'm just going to assure them that I'm good and that I'm OK," she said. "Because I think that is important to them."