DIANNE FEINSTEIN tilts back in her executive-style chair, laces her fingers behind her neck, and, after a serious moment, erupts into laughter. ``How did being a woman affect my career? Well, I think it helped me to lose two races.'' She can smile now, but back in 1975, ambitions dashed by her second unsuccessful campaign to be San Francisco's chief executive, Dianne Feinstein thought she was simply not electable. Today, as she vacates the mayor's chair after nine years in office, she knows she has defied all conventional political wisdom - even her own.
``Star quality.'' ``A symbol of the very best in America.'' ``A bright light on the Democratic political landscape.'' Described in glowing terms by Democratic Party movers and shakers, Mayor Feinstein is one of the few city leaders with a national profile.
From an inauspicious start - thrust into the mayor's seat in 1978 after the horrific double murder of Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk - she has been reelected twice in her own right and triumphed over a recall attempt. In 1984, the year San Francisco served as host to the Democratic National Convention, she was second on Walter Mondale's list of running mates. A crusader for more AIDS funding, a vigorous proponent of job growth, and a self-styled ``entrepreneur of the public sector,'' Mayor Feinstein was named 1987 Mayor of the Year by City and State magazine.
As she looks to the future with an eye on the California governor's mansion, she possesses the knowledge that she is finally her own woman. Even one of the biggest bugaboos for women candidates - fund raising - no longer daunts her.
``Initially, it [fund raising] was a big problem. To be very frank, I'd say a majority of my contributions came out of deference to my father, who was a great surgeon and well respected here,'' Feinstein says of her early candidacies. ``I never thought of this before, but that isn't true now. Now I raise money on my own because of what I stand for. That's a very good feeling.''
Should she decide to run for governor in 1990, Feinstein will need about $4 million for a credible primary campaign.
``She'll have no problem with that,'' says Duane Garrett, financial chief of Mr. Mondale's '84 campaign and Feinstein's new finance consultant. The mayor already has an ``enormous base'' of more than 3,000 contributors, as well as ``great national reach,'' he says. ``As soon as she floated the idea of running for governor, I got over 100 calls from people in at least 15 different states asking how they could help.''
Officially, Feinstein says only that she will spend the next year writing a book, traveling in the Orient with her husband, Richard Blum, and ``speaking out statewide on issues I care about: homelessness, AIDS, education, transit, water policy, economic development.''
But the mayor, who once said on national television that her long-range goal is to be ``the first female chief executive of this country,'' has a blueprint for how a woman can be elected to national office - and the California governorship may well fit the specifications.
Experience as an executive at the state or national level is a key element, says Feinstein.
``A few years in Congress probably won't do it,'' she says. ``Voters will look seriously at women who are governors or women who have been respected on national policy for a long period of time. ... People can look at them and say, `They carry my vision of what this country is all about, and they measure up to my image of what I want my No. 1 national leader to be.'''
Because women in executive power are still relatively novel, ``people tend to want very badly to stereotype them,'' Feinstein says. ``[British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher, for instance, is the Iron Maiden. Strength in women is very often critically evaluated, and strength in men is not.''
Feinstein, who says she's had her share of unflattering nicknames, including ``White Gloves'' and ``Goody Two-Shoes,'' nonetheless asserts that ``I can't be typed.'' In part because of the unusual way she came into office, she says she never became part of ``a political machine'' to get elected.
``I've done it my way, on my own. Sometimes people like to shove you back when you do it that way, too,'' Feinstein says, a veiled reference to the 1983 recall election that friends and colleagues say cut her to the quick. ``But it's the way I had to do it. I didn't have any other choice. I was always sort of the outsider.''
Feinstein's critics say she is out of touch with San Francisco's electorate. ``She doesn't respond to concerns of people in the neighborhoods until it reaches a crisis,'' says neighborhood activist Dick Grosboll.
Her administration's much-ballyhooed Downtown Plan for controlling high-rise office construction, he says, was enacted only after neighborhood voices threatened to make themselves heard via a stringent anti-growth ballot initiative. A recent moratorium on housing demolitions in some city districts is another case in point.
``The mayor [who pushed for a temporary moratorium rather than a permanent ban favored by neighborhood activists] ignored our concerns until the last minute,'' Mr. Grosboll says. ``She tends to view those people who disagree with her as her enemies, so she won't bring them in or solicit their views, particularly on planning issues.''
The very characteristics that provoke her critics, however, draw applause from her supporters. Detractors say she's ``intransigent,'' while fans call her ``tenacious.'' Some say her eagerness to compromise shows a lack of guiding principles; others say compromise is Feinstein's way to ensure that something gets done.
But virtually everyone - including Feinstein - agrees that the Reagan years have been a difficult time to be mayor. The city has lost $150 million in federal funding since 1980, as urban program upon urban program has been dropped from the budget. In addition, cities today are struggling with problems that didn't even exist when Feinstein first took office, such as homelessness and AIDS.
President Reagan's urban policies ``are an abdication of the traditional role of federal government,'' says Feinstein, who leaves office amid projections that San Francisco will face a $77 million revenue shortfall in the next fiscal year. The federal-city partnership was forged under the recognition that state legislatures were dominated by rural interests, she says. ``So cities went directly to the federal government for assistance, and the federal government recognized that 70 percent of Americans live in cities.''
Feinstein says cities must get back on the national agenda - but she has yet to see a presidential candidate with a clearly defined program for urban revitalization.
``Cities have to show, through the ballot box, that they have clout,'' she says.