MAYOR Art Agnos is fighting for his political life. After being swept into office in 1987 in a dramatic, come-from-behind victory with 75 percent of the vote, the San Francisco mayor placed a surprising second in a five-way Democratic primary Nov. 5, with 28 percent of the vote.The top vote-getter, former Police Chief Frank Jordan, got 32 percent. Polls show the two in a dead heat as a Dec. 10 runoff approaches. Mayor Agnos is scrambling to get closer to the public, apologize for past mistakes, and set out his agenda to right them. "I need to be more aggressive about getting out into neighborhoods and talking to people," Agnos told KNBR radio talk show host Peter B. Collins in an Agnos-Jordan debate Nov. 25. "I have tended to be preoccupied with some of the tough problems - earthquakes and recession, drought, budget deficits - and so I tended to focus on problem-solving inside City Hall." "The Jordan campaign has Agnos on the ropes," says commentator and media analyst Richard Rapaport. "Agnos knows Jordan's people have the fire of mission the way he [Agnos] did in 1987 - and it's disconcerting." Mr. Jordan is taking Agnos to task for the widening perception that San Francisco's rising crime, aggressive panhandling, homelessness, and filth have left the city's glory days behind. Agnos is trying to paint Jordan as racist, anti-homeless, anti-gay, and inexperienced in politics and city administration. "[Jordan] doesn't take a stand on issues, and when he does, it's after a lot of looking at it and thinking about it, and by that time, the voters have already decided," Agnos said in the debate. "That's the difference between you and me, Art," rebutted Jordan. "You make your quick decisions but maybe you should take a little time and make good decisions." Larry Kamer, a political analyst at Kamer/Singer Associates, says: "It's easy to attack an incumbent on such issues that the city is not being well managed, that a more fiscally responsible and moderate mayor [like Jordan] would do better. [Jordan] is using that to his advantage well." Several observers note that many of San Francisco's problems under Agnos have been exacerbated by a general decline hitting many California cities, national recession, five years of drought, and state and federal cutbacks in urban aid. They note that Agnos won national and local kudos for his handling of the 1989 earthquake and initiatives in AIDS awareness. During his administration, San Francisco has built more affordable housing than any city in the country. Agnos also has maintained the city's double bond rating despite record deficits, helped move the port from the nation's 20th-largest to 12th, and warmed the city's climate toward small businesses. Much of the mayor's loss of support, say observers, is due to his failure to consult with various ethnic and governmental bodies before taking action. Instead, an aloof and abrasive quality has fed the campaigns of such detractors as Supervisor Tom Hsieh, who made political hay over Agnos's refusal to restructure seven costly and controversial deputy-mayor positions until it may have been too late. "San Francisco is a political culture that thrives on personality politics," says Mr. Kamer. "To call [Agnos] a vindictive and mean-spirited individual in this campaign is not to separate him from a lot of others." The Jordan campaign is touting its man as the candidate of big business, jobs, fiscal responsibility, and public safety. Early AIDS intervention clinics, accountability programs for homeless funding, and workfare for able-bodied prisoners to help keep streets clean are Jordan ideas. "We want to get the police force up to authorized strength," says Didi Meyer, Jordan campaign director. "And we want to trim the size of city bureaucracy." Both candidates are putting favorable spins on last week's announcements that the city deficit has hit $91 million. Jordan emphasizes his hometown roots and reminds voters that, as a lifetime policeman, he has never sought public office before. Born in the city's Excelsior District and having resided at a dozen different homes, he calls himself a "consensus builder" and talks often of returning city government to nonpoliticians. After serving five years as police chief - establishing neighborhood safety programs, a hate crimes unit, and a senior escort program - he stepped down to mount his current challenge. But while Jordan concedes he is just getting up to speed on several city issues, from education to housing, Agnos is seizing every chance to underline his opponent's inexperience. "[Jordan] is a one-dimensional career cop with no knowledge of city government ... let alone the state and federal machinery that is increasingly important in solving tough urban problems," says Scott Shafer, Agnos campaign director. But so far, observers say, Jordan's "unknown" quotient is working for, not against him. "This campaign is all about Art Agnos and very little about Jordan," says Mr. Rapaport.