WHEN Charlotte Townsend first ran for mayor of this tiny resort community four years ago, she did it the customary Carmel way: She devised a campaign strategy at the kitchen table and passed out a few handbills at the post office. This time around, things have been different. From the moment she arises in the morning, and sometimes before, she is importuned by reporters, often from as far away as France and Australia.
In recent weeks, Mrs. Townsend has appeared, or been asked to appear, on national television with a frequency that would titillate George Bush.
``This whole thing is out of kilter,'' says the former librarian, sitting on a bench overlooking a frothy Carmel Bay at sunset. ``A Canadian television crew recently wanted to live with me for a week!''
Such are the perils of running for office when your chief opponent is actor Clint Eastwood.
As a tourist mecca, Carmel, a piney post-card community perched on the Monterey Peninsula 120 miles south of San Francisco, is used to outside visitors. But ever since Mr. Eastwood threw his cowboy hat into the ring last January, the village has come in for more than its share of klieg-light attention.
On any given day, reporters and TV crews are often stacked up three deep to see any of the three candidates running in the race. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau recently devoted a week of his ``Doonesbury'' comic strip to the election. Even tourists are finding politics in Carmel more captivating than the scenery.
At a local restaurant, one visitor recently leaned over to ask a resident: ``Well, is Clint going to win or not?'' Necks craned from surrounding tables to hear the answer, which was inaudible.
When Eastwood recently showed up at his campaign headquarters for an interview with a local TV station, a group of passers-by instantly huddled out front and began to chant ``Clint, Clint.'' A campaign worker politely shooed them away.
There are persistent rumors that tour-bus companies are selling tickets to future City Council meetings, under the presumption, of course, that the actor will be presiding over them.
``This is probably the biggest thing to ever happen to Carmel,'' says Michael Gardner, a columnist with the local newspaper, the weekly Pine Cone.
The level of commotion in town is partly what the election, set for tomorrow, is all about. Even though it is a favorite way-stop for tourists, Carmel (pop. 4,700) has managed to remain obdurately quaint.
There are no neon signs, parking meters, streetlights, or numbered addresses here (residents pick up their mail at the post office). The one-square-mile community is bespeckled with some 13,000 trees on public land, tended by a municipal ``forester'' and all cataloged by computer.
Many residents like things this way and are backing Townsend, who has been particularly vigorous in trying to preserve Carmel's hamlet character and limit tourist-oriented businesses.
Eastwood, a 14-year resident, is not for turning Carmel into Cleveland. But he decries the ``kill-joy mentality'' of the current mayor and City Council toward tourists and local businesses and contends that it's time for Carmel to shed its ``Scrooge'' image. ``What we have seen here is keeping the voter in a state of fear,'' he said in a recent televised debate.
The Hollywood hopeful received something of a boost when long-shot candidate Paul Laub, the town's leading purveyor of T-shirts to tourists, decided to pull out of the race and back Eastwood. The only other entrant is fringe candidate Tim Grady, a young restaurant worker and self-styled environmentalist who advocates, among other things, that the town organize its own organic garden and that deer, not cars, be allowed to roam the streets.
Carmel's feud over development is one that has bedeviled many idyllic small towns in America. But the debate here runs deeper than most, dating back almost to the turn of the century. In 1770, the area was settled by Spanish missionaries. A little more than a century later, real estate ``hucksters'' moved in. They divided the scenic, ocean-front site into tiny lots. By the 1920s Carmel-By-the-Sea had blossomed into a thriving town of mainly artists and writers.
Word of the village's charm soon spread, and local merchants began to push for facilities to accommodate the influx of tourists and new entrants. A backlash among residents resulted in 1929 in the adoption of what has become the town's spiritual Magna Carta: a zoning ordinance that decreed that business and commerce were to be forever ``subordinated'' to Carmel's residential character.
Ever since, there have been intermittent battles over this preservationist ethic. Last year, the town prohibited a businessman from opening a takeout ice-cream stand along the town's main thoroughfare. Council members said the reason was to conserve water. But some residents said they suspected snobbery. Owners of many of the town's 67-plus art galleries, 50 motels, and dozens of restaurants and other businesses are piqued about the commercial regulations in particular. Among them is Eastwood, who himself has bumped up against the long arm of local government himself.
Last year the actor sued the council after claiming it placed undue restrictions on an office he wanted to build next to the Hog's Breath Inn, a popular restaurant of which he is part owner. Town fathers later accepted a modified design.
On the stump, the actor denies Mayor Townsend's charge that he is development-happy. He contends, however, that it is time to loosen the community's civic straitjacket. Eastwood talks, in a very un-Dirty Harry way, about ``bringing the community together.''
``Any development in the future must be development with a lot of thought,'' he said in a recent debate.
Mayor Townsend, for her part, touts a record of selective progress -- like upgrading recreational facilities while resisting more commercial development. ``The issue,'' she says, ``is whether we want business-developer interests or residential-neighborhood interests at City Hall.''
Though the stakes in the race may seem small -- the job pays only $200 a month -- the candidates are not treating it like a spaghetti western. Eastwood has spent $34,000 on the nonpartisan race and Townsend has raised $6,300 -- this in a town where $700 has been considered a huge campaign war chest.
At first, many residents thought the Eastwood candidacy was a lark. But he has since dispelled many doubts about his sincerity by going door to door and meeting local residents over tea and crackers to discuss everything from parking to public restrooms.
A recent poll showed the actor-director leading Mayor Townsend by a margin of more than 2 to 1.
``I don't know Mr. Eastwood as a movie star. I just know him as a Carmelite,'' says a 44-year resident. ``As a mayor, I think he'd make a good one.''
Tomorrow will tell if the voters will make his day.