While Democratic gubernatorial candidates Ann Richards in Texas and Dianne Feinstein in California have captured the media's attention, Barbara Roberts, a Democrat running for governor in Oregon, has pulled into the lead and appears to have the best chance of winning of any of the women candidates for governor.

Patricia McCaig, Roberts's campaign director, said a television poll released yesterday shows the secretary of state with a six-point lead over Republican Dave Frohnmayer, the state attorney general, who began the campaign with a big lead. McCaig credits the turnaround to some of the same factors that Sharon Pratt Dixon brought to her Democratic mayoral primary victory in the District: leadership and character.

Roberts took on the utility industry when she backed the closing of Oregon's only nuclear power plant, which she cast as a health and safety issue and which turned out to have overwhelming voter support. And "she was the first to say to Oregon and the timber industry that times have changed," during the spotted owl vs. logging controversy, McCaig said. "It was the piece many editorial boards used to credit her with leadership."

Sex has not been a big issue until very recently, McCaig said, when voters have been asking her candidate about child care. "The real political landscape has been accountability, telling it like it is, and the belief that voters will accept you if they have a sense of who you are and what you stand for even if they don't agree with you."

"She can win. She's in the best position," said Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund, which raises money to elect progressive women of both parties. "The ultimate irony of the 1990 election is that women have become traditional candidates. They've come up through the ranks, but now there is a mood of the voters to elect outsiders."

Record numbers of women are running for statewide political offices and for Congress this year. Danowitz points to three women running for the Senate who have strong records in the House and yet are either far behind or, in the case of Pat Saiki (R-Hawaii), in a tight race. "The fact that they've served is almost a disservice. The Saiki race, depending on the polls, is neck and neck. She'd be the first Asian woman in the Senate. She's pro-choice. One more woman in the U.S. Senate is nothing to blink at."

Women are running for governor or lieutenant governor in 20 of the 36 states holding gubernatorial elections. Almost half of these states have women running for jobs in which they would control state finances -- including New York and California. "Carol Bellamy, running for comptroller of New York, would be the comptroller of the largest pension fund in the country," Danowitz said. "These are very . . . powerful positions."

Danowitz says that more women than ever won major party nominations this year, with the largest increase showing up in the number of lieutenant governor candidates: 19, which is double the number in 1986. Five states -- California, Iowa, Colorado, Nebraska and Arizona -- have three or more women running on the ticket, signaling an end to the token women era.

"The fact that women have been competitive to the end is in and of itself an accomplishment," she said. "So often we were written off in August and September. We've stayed competitive in the money and in the polls. The

fact that we've had women who are competitive makes it a lot easier to raise money to support them. If Feinstein or Richards loses, it won't be for lack of money. They've been able to be competitive."

Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University, described this election cycle as the year of the cliffhanger for women candidates, but she says it is the first time that women have held their own in the kind of fights that Richards and Feinstein are in. "We're talking here about raising $10 million. They are still being outspent by about $6 million in each case by the men they are facing. Women are caught up out of necessity in the obscene costs of American campaigns. And on the positive side, women have shown they can raise this kind of campaign support."

She says these two races, in particular, are like coming attractions for the 21st century. "We are hanging on the cliff to see if we can enter the 21st century . . . where men and women share leadership so there is a balance of interests and perspectives and sensitivities that really speaks to the diversity of the planet." And although the progress of women in politics has been slow, it has been steady. "We've made a lot of changes in 20 years. So much change that it makes me know that there is no turning back."