Los Angeles — Two years ago, Tom Bradley missed becoming the nation's first elected black governor by 0.68 percent of the California vote. Last summer, Mayor Bradley was one of the few prominent Democrats invited to North Oaks, Minn., for a final sizing up by Walter Mondale as a running mate.
In recent years, Tom Bradley has been a sort of great black hope, breaking - or nearly breaking - color barriers in American politics.
He announced last week that he was running for a fourth term as mayor of Los Angeles. Political observers are confident that the popular mayor, still glowing from the success of the Los Angeles Olympics, can win another term to City Hall next April. Most are more curious about how well this race will position him for leaping into larger political ponds.
Whatever Bradley's ambitions are, and he won't admit to any beyond city limits, observers see the mayor laying the groundwork for bigger campaigns - most likely, another shot at the California governorship in 1986.
Last summer, he replaced more than two-thirds of Los Angeles's 175 city commissioners. The move, to bring fresh talent to the patronage posts, has the added benefit of reinvigorating the mayor's political base.
He has also brought some more politically minded aides onto his staff, led by deputy mayor and the chief of staff, Tom Houston.
Bradley is building his mayoral campaign around grass-roots, door-to-door field organizing in the black and Jewish communities where he runs strongest, rather than around media advertising. Running for governor in 1982, says Los Angeles political consultant Peter Coye, Bradley ''didn't pay enough attention to his base, almost the classic mistake.''
''He's spending time building his organization, which he has never really done before in 16 years of running for mayor,'' says Larry Berg, director of the University of Southern California's Institute of Government and Politics.
Some blame Bradley's loss in 1982 to lack of on-the-ground organization in the urban neighborhoods where he is most popular. Fewer of those voters got to the polls that year than when Bradley ran for mayor the year before.
The mayor's chief rival for the post to emerge so far is conservative City Councilman John Ferraro. Mr. Ferraro is already attacking Bradley's support of the Metrorail, a planned subway line from 8 to 19 miles long, and charging him with insufficient support of the police department.
But the mayor has proven to be popular with a wide constituency, ranging from poor south-central Los Angeles to the affluent West Side to the corporate downtown interests. Bradley is largely responsible for bringing the Olympics to Los Angeles, a highly charged political risk that paid off handsomely. He is also given a major share of credit for the economic and cultural rebirth of the city's once-decaying downtown.
''The irony,'' says Peter Coye, ''is that he will win crushingly, but will not emerge unscathed.'' For Ferraro and others who enter the mayoral fray, Bradley will be the target. Any opponent will have to try to undermine his popularity, as Ferraro is trying to do.
Opinions are mixed about Bradley's chances in another gubernatorial race. Gov. George Deukmejian will be running as an incumbent, presiding over what is now a reasonably prosperous state with a balanced budget. But Bradley backers point out that the economy and other variables in the political environment could change by 1986.
''I think the great middle, which isn't strongly committed one way or another makes up its mind on very current issues,'' says longtime Bradley campaign adviser Maury Weiner. He adds that two other Californians, Ronald Reagan and Sen. Alan Cranston, both senior to Bradley, have defused the age issue in politics.
Republican political consultant Bill Roberts sees Bradley running strong in Los Angeles, but not beyond. Since the close 1982 race, he says, ''people have made a decision on Deukmejian, and they don't have any reason to dump him.''