WHEN Pete Wilson won reelection in November to the US Senate from California, he probably thought he could put his feet up for six years. He still may do that, but many of his fellow Republicans would prefer to see him padding around the campaign trail again - running for governor of California.
Republican Gov. George Deukmejian's recent decision not to seek a third term in 1990 has touched off a wave of coy maneuvering by those who would be governor - and behind-the-scenes pressuring of others, such as Mr. Wilson, who strategists think should be governor.
The result could be the biggest turnover in California political leadership in nearly two decades. It may also portend a new group of politicians ready to move into national politics in the 1990s, given the state's recent tradition of being a farm club for presidential aspirants.
That Wilson is being considered by the GOP so soon after his Senate victory underscores how short the Republican bench is in California. Indeed, the Deukmejian exit has left the GOP without an obvious heir-apparent.
To fill the void, the party is looking outside the usual rungs of succession, as it did in 1966, when it tapped Ronald Reagan.
Wilson would be a formidable candidate. Cautious but seasoned, the former mayor and state assemblyman from San Diego is probably the closest thing to an incumbent the GOP could run. Although the governorship was his first ambition - he ran and lost in the 1978 GOP primary - there is no guarantee he will answer the call. A loss could undermine his chances of winning a third Senate term in 1994. Friends say he enjoys the Senate, and no one could relish going back on the campaign trail so soon.
``I'll be very surprised if Pete Wilson comes forward,'' says Stuart K. Spencer, the veteran California-based GOP strategist.
SHOULD Wilson decide not to preempt the field, many party regulars who say the GOP needs a candidate from ``central casting,'' 'a la Reagan, are looking toward Peter Ueberroth, the retiring baseball commissioner.
Well-known in the state, he established a reputation as an effective manager while running the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.
Still, Mr. Ueberroth, who, like Wilson, hasn't said if he is interested, has never run for office, and his political views are relatively unknown. ``The opportunity for mistakes is high,'' a top GOP strategist says.
Beyond these two, the list of high-profile GOP figures drops off. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates is interested in the job, though few give him much chance. Also mentioned is Dan Lungren, a former conservative congressman, but the breadth of his appeal is questioned, too.
The Democrats are in the enviable position of having more depth, but that could lead to a bruising primary.
Near the top of the Democratic establishment's list is Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp. The two-term moderate probably would have run no matter who the GOP standard-bearer was. But with Deukmejian out, he is likely to have more company. Former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein authorized an exploratory committee after Deukmejian's announcement.
Other Democrats interested in the job include the state controller, Gray Davis, one of the state's most ambitious politicians. Less certain is whether Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, who lost a US Senate bid to Wilson in November, will enter the fray.
If any of these state officeholders should jump in, it will open up their jobs, which could lead to a wholesale changing of the guard in California politics.