LOS ANGELES -- As the up-for-grabs California governor's race goes down to the wire, Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Pete Wilson are pursuing an elusive target called change.
The high-stakes election, regarded by both national parties as the most important of 1990, is largely about shifting the direction of this vast and increasingly troubled state.
But politicians here differ, along with the candidates themselves, about how much change voters are prepared to accept and which candidate can better deliver it.
"Do people want change, or will they vote their insecurity about the way things are going?" asks John Emerson, a Los Angeles attorney and Democratic activist. "During times of economic uncertainty, people are probably looking more for a steady hand rather than somebody who will rock the boat."
After two terms of Republican stewardship under retiring Gov. George Deukmejian, Democrat Feinstein clearly comes closer to being the boat-rocker.
And the former mayor of San Francisco, bidding to become the state's first female governor, seems to have gotten that message across. A Los Angeles Times poll released last week showed that Californians identify her over Mr. Wilson as "the candidate of change" by a margin of 59 to 13 percent.
At the same time, she is attempting to reassure Californians who are looking for steadiness by running campaign commercials that tout her "tough" leadership of San Francisco after the 1978 assassination of Mayor George Moscone.
Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, also seems to be benefiting from his "change" theme, which attempts to play on public disgust with the Democratic-controlled state legislature.
A 24-year career politician, the Republican has tried to align himself with outsider sentiment this fall by endorsing tough term limits on state legislators.
The ploy seems to have worked. By a 3-to-2 margin in the Times poll, Californians said they were more likely to support Mr. Wilson because of his stance on term limits, in which legislators would be limited to eight years of service.
Ms. Feinstein opposes the idea, which allows her opponent to warn that she would become part of the problem if elected by throwing in with Democratic legislators who would raise taxes.
"Mrs. Feinstein, while proclaiming loudly that she is the agent of change, is in fact the captive of those who are opposed to change with their dying breath," charges Mr. Wilson.
According to most private and public voter surveys, Mr. Wilson is leading by 4 to 6 percentage points. But with 7 percent to 16 percent of the electorate undecided, the outcome could go either way in the view of politicians and analysts.
Unlike past gubernatorial contests, there's no Jerry Brown or Ronald Reagan stirring the public's imagination this time. Mr. Wilson and Ms. Feinstein are serious government technicians in their late 50s who shy away from the extremes of their respective parties.
Ms. Feinstein defies liberal stereotypes with her primly conservative personal manner and her support for the death penalty. A political moderate, she is stressing education, environmental and crime issues, coupled with vague promises to manage state growth.
Mr. Wilson, while clearly more conservative, once voted for decriminalization of marijuana possession as a member of the state legislature and favors abortion rights.
Although more of a government activist than either Mr. Deukmejian or Mr. Reagan, his message is a rerun of the GOP's crime, drugs and anti-tax triad that produced victories in four of the state's last six gubernatorial elections.
A former mayor of San Diego, the state's second-largest city, Mr. Wilson has sought to contrast his record with Mrs. Feinstein's in San Francisco, making the race at times seem more like a municipal campaign than a struggle for leadership of the nation's most populous state.
With California about to gain six or seven congressional seats thanks to the growth during the 1980s that pushed the state's population above 29 million, the political stakes are enormous. The new governor will give his or her party a crucial political advantage when district lines are redrawn next year, which is why both national parties consider this the top race of 1990.
Continued growth has also brought a staggering array of economic and social problems, including deteriorating air quality, jammed freeways, stratospheric housing costs and mediocre schools.
Neither candidate has addressed these issues in a sustained fashion in their media campaigns -- the only message that gets through to most voters.
Instead, they have squabbled over personal integrity, the savings-and-loan issue, and quotas for women and minorities in state jobs.
Those exchanges appeared to have worked to Mr. Wilson's advantage by removing much of the luster from Ms. Feinstein's image as a shining new face in state politics.
"She's seen as just another politician now," said Otto Bos, Mr. Wilson's campaign manager. Many Democrats agree.
Polls indicate that female voters, whose support vaulted Ms. Feinstein to victory in the Democratic primary, have cooled on her somewhat. The Times survey showed that Mr. Wilson had firmed up his support among Republican women, whom the Feinstein campaign had hoped to lure by portraying her as a stronger guarantor of abortion rights.
Recently, Ms. Feinstein scored a tactical victory by accusing the senator of neglecting his duties in Washington. Mr. Wilson was forced to fly back to the capital less than three weeks before Election Day and air TV commercials defending himself against the absenteeism charge.
Between them, the candidates are likely to spend more than $30 million, most of it for television ads. A federal court ruling last month threw out the state's limits on campaign contributions, adding a new element of uncertainty to the race as both sides scrambled to raise additional funds for their closing, and potentially decisive, TV ad drives.