Los Angeles — The only Californian in public life who scores an image rating higher than Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley is Peter Ueberroth, the Los Angeles Olympics chief who, according to a California Poll taken in February, tops the field for popularity. And Mr. Ueberroth, now commissioner of baseball, is reading cue cards full of panegyric for Mayor Bradley's leadership on prime-time campaign commercials here.
Bradley is running for an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in a race in which the only suspense has been over how much Bradley's political future would be damaged by an aggressive underdog candidate.
Running counterpoint to Ueberroth's campaign spots for Bradley are hard-hitting commercials by his chief opponent, Councilman John Ferraro. They feature children playing in the sludge of abandoned toxic waste barrels and a little girl complaining of shortness of breath while a voice alleges that Mayor Bradley delayed for two years in closing a dangerous dump site on the city's east side.
Despite campaigning like this, the political handicappers see little or no damage to Bradley's popularity. And opinion polls show the mayor likely to win an outright majority, as he has in the past, avoiding a runoff.
The subtext of the campaign has been the prospect of a Bradley try at unseating Gov. George Deukmejian next year -- a second chance to become the nation's first elected black governor, a chance he missed so narrowly in 1982. Councilman Ferraro has made Bradley's larger ambitions a major theme, portraying the mayor as a careerist no longer deeply interested in the municipal affairs of the nation's second-largest city.
Bradley himself has remained noncommittal in his future plans.
But Democrats around the city widely suspect that much of the financial and political support for Mr. Ferraro comes from Republicans (Ferraro, like Bradley, is a Democrat) who have simply wanted to deflate Bradley for any possible rematch with Mr. Deukmejian.
``The strategy obviously was to damage Bradley for his future races,'' says Kent Spieller, a lawyer and Democratic political consultant. ``It hasn't worked.''
Bradley is certainly rated as highly in opinion polls as ever. A late March poll by the Los Angeles Times gave him a 3-to-1 lead over Ferraro, who was still unknown to 40 percent of the city's voters. A California Poll taken in February shows Bradley viewed favorably by 80 percent of the state's public.
But Deukmejian's ratings run nearly as high, and his job rating in office now tops the highest mark Ronald Reagan reached while he was governor. ``I don't think Deukmejian can be beaten,'' says Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.
Bradley lost to Deukmejian by only 93,000 votes, less than 1 percent of the electorate, after leading in the polls for most of the race. One factor in the surprise loss was a well-organized Republican absentee-ballot drive. Another was a low turnout in black and Latino precincts in Los Angeles, where Bradley was a strong favorite.
Bradley has worked harder to envigorate this core constituency. Politicians here will be watching Tuesday's results to see how much enthusiasm he can muster among ethnic groups, especially Latinos.
Many Democrats are skeptical that Bradley can beat Deukmejian in 1986. The powerful Democratic political machine led by US Reps. Henry Waxman and Howard Berman, both of Los Angeles, tried to force Bradley to swear off any gubernatorial ambitions before extending their customary endorsement. Bradley made no such commitment, and the organization endorsed him anyway. But it made clear that Bradley was not its best hope to unseat Deukmejian.
Rather it is taking a cue from last year's presidential primary, when US Sen. Gary Hart, a long shot, trounced Walter Mondale. Bradley, like Mondale, is a traditional Democrat who seeks to build interest-group alliances in the New Deal mold.
The Waxman-Berman group may have another Gary Hart in mind to carry the Democratic banner here in 1986, state Sen. Gary Hart from Santa Barbara, an articulate, new-ideas type candidate with something of the boyish good looks of Colorado's Gary Hart.
John Ferraro faults Bradley for more concrete failings. Much of what the mayor takes credit for -- a revitalized downtown, the successful private Olympics, a profitable harbor, airport expansion -- he had little responsibility for, argues Ferraro, who is a soft-spoken, 18-year veteran on the City Council. -- 30 --