THE race for governor of California, probably the most important election of 1990, has been shaping up to be as formulaic as a ``Rocky'' script. It would be US Sen. Pete Wilson for the Republicans against state Attorney General John Van de Kamp for the Democrats in a platinum-priced campaign by two seasoned if bland political professionals.
Now, suddenly, there is a third force: former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein. A new poll shows the Democratic Ms. Feinstein ahead of her male opponents. While analysts play down the significance of early polls, the results have energized the Feinstein campaign - and set political antennae quivering in the nation's most populous state.
``It is impossible to underestimate what a staggering change this is,'' says Joe Scott, who edits a political newsletter here.
Besides determining who will run California after Gov. George Deukmejian (R) leaves office, the election this November will help shape the balance of power in the US House of Representatives. California is expected to get as many as 52 seats from the 1990 census, up from 45 now.
Democrats are likely to keep their majority in the state Legislature, and thus predominate in redrawing congressional districts.
A Republican in the governor's mansion, however, could veto or force a compromise on any creative redistricting by the Democrats. This is why GOP national chairman Lee Atwater touts the race here as the No. 1 contest in the country (and why President Bush is likely to be a frequent visitor this year).
In the poll released last week, Feinstein beat Senator Wilson 46 percent to 43 percent in a theoretical November contest. Against Mr. Van de Kamp, whom she will meet in a June primary, she leads 42 percent to 38 percent.
``It completely changes the dynamics,'' says Mervin Field, who conducted the poll. ``At least for now she is competitive.''
Early surveys are notoriously fickle because voters have not yet focused on the campaign. More than anything, the abrupt swing probably reflects a series of propitiously timed TV messages.
In a gambit to revive her flagging campaign, the Feinstein camp began the ads last month to introduce her to voters outside San Francisco, mainly in vote-rich southern California. One dramatic spot shows her taking over the mayor's office in a time of crisis, after former Mayor George Moscone's assassination in 1978.
Pundits say the impact of her commercials will not be as dramatic when the other two candidates, both of whom have more money, begin their own ads. Still, the poll results should give Feinstein a fund-raising lift and enhance her credibility.
In Van de Kamp, Feinstein faces a formidable primary opponent. The liberal Democrat has worked his way up through the political vineyards - first as a Los Angeles district attorney and then as attorney general. He is well known, particularly in southern California.
``With Van de Kamp there is less fear of the unknown,'' says a top GOP strategist in the state.
Van de Kamp has thrown his weight behind a trio of ballot initiatives: a sweeping environmental measure, a crime-victims initiative, and a limit on legislators' terms in office (which critics say allows this consummate insider to pose as a political outsider).
Wilson, too, is backing a crime-victims initiative. In a state where voters seem detached and politicians define themselves in TV sound bites, using initiatives to signal stands on issues may be shrewd. But there are dangers in the new politics by proxy: Van de Kamp's stands, for instance, have alienated some constituencies.
Even though he is the state's top cop, Van de Kamp is perceived as vulnerable on crime. As a public official he has vowed to carry out the death penalty, but remains personally opposed to it, an unpopular stand in California.
Certainly this was not lost on Wilson, who, in recently announcing his gubernatorial bid, surrounded himself at several stops with police and thumped the crime issue. He also pledged more activism on the environment and increased attention to education and social issues - stands that place him in the middle of many California voters.
``He is really going to be tough to beat,'' says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. ``He doesn't make a lot of mistakes.''
Although some anti-abortionists protest Wilson's support of a woman's right to choose, no substantive GOP challenge has been mounted to his candidacy. The former San Diego mayor can concentrate on the general election while the Democrats scuffle through a primary. He has amassed an enviable war chest - $8.2 million versus some $4 million for Van de Kamp and $2.3 million for Feinstein ($1.3 million of which is personal money).
Still, Wilson, like Van de Kamp, is often characterized as unexciting. Which is where Feinstein comes in. In a campaign where the three candidates differ on major issues more in nuance than in fundamental philosophy, analysts say her biggest asset is dynamism - a ``star'' quality that some say makes her a better match for Wilson.
She sought to differentiate herself in formally announcing her bid two weeks ago - as a political outsider, as the only woman in a field of men. For now, though, she has to prove that the recent rise in the polls was more than a blip from a few TV ads.