Bruce R. Watkins says he is "a new idea for Kansas City." He is against busing and putting public housing projects in middle-class neighborhoods. He wants to crack down on crime and help big business.

"I'm bullish on Kansas City," he declares, sounding like a booster of the local Chamber of Commerce. "Kansas City is a great place to live, and it's going to get better."

Bruce Watkins also wants to become the first black mayor of this city in the middle of the nation's agricultural heartland -- a city where only one resident in five is black.

"My big problem is to create the impression that I'm for all the people," he said.

Watkins and almost everyone else here has agreed that one question will be uppermost on the minds of voters when they go to the polls here tomerrow: Is Kansas City ready for a black mayor?

Watkins, a veteran of 23 years of political warfare here, is betting it is.

"Is any city ever ready for a black mayor?" he asked. "Was Los Angeles ready for Tom Bradley? Was Los Atlanta ready for Maynard Jackson? Was Detroit ready for Coleman Young?"

His opponent, Richard Berkley, is betting the city isn't, and that he will become the city's first Republican mayor in 54 years. His campaign hasn't done anything to make race an issue. But race is there, nonetheless, said Jerry Jette, his chief campaign strategist, and will be Watkins' undoing.

"This isn't Newark, or Detroit or someplace else where 30 or 40 percent of the people are black," Jette said. "We're talking about a real minority here. The numbers are all against him."

None of the so-called "experts" thought Watkins, a robust city councilman with a swashbuckling style, would be one of the two finalists in the race.

Technically, mayoral elections here are nonpartisan affairs, and candidates run without party labels. Six candidates, including incumbent Mayor Charles Wheeler, a Democrat, were on the ballot in the Feb. 27 primary.

Wheeler was expected to at least survive the primary because the city is in basically good shape and is financially sound. A new airport, sports complex, convention center and a rash of new commercial buildings opened during Wheeler's eight years in office.

And the favorable attention Kansas City received during the 1976 Republican National Convention put the city on an emotional high that still lingers.

Nonetheless, Wheeler, a maverick who once filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission when broadcast stations failed to cover his news conferences, finished fourth in the field of six.

Watkins was a surprising first in the primary, 4,089 votes ahead of Berkley, a wealthy city councilman. This left Kansas City with a situation inconsistent with its political and ethnic makeup: the new mayor would be a black or a Jewish Republican.

Because Watkins had shown little strength outside black-dominated wards in the inner city, he is an underdog.

"If the race boils down to a blackagainst-white vote, Bruce doesn't have a chance." said Lonnie Shelton, a former county Democratic chairman who became a Watkins strategist after the primary.

So Watkins moved to solidify traditional Democratic support. Wheeler, Missouri Gov. Joseph Teasdale, Sen. Thomas F. Eagelton and a host of local Democratic bigwigs endorsed him.

So did the Kansas City Star and most of organized labor. And last Wednesday Vice President Mondale came here for a fund-raiser and rally.

Berkley scolded Mondale for his visit, saying it cost taxpayers $71,000 and violated the nonpartisan tradition of city politics -- a tradition that goes back to 1940 when the old Pendergast machine, which had controlled the city for decades, was thrown out of office.

"Your visit," Berkley said in a telegram that challenged Mondale to a debate on city issues, "will threaten the foundation of nonpartisanship."

Police overtime for the visit alone cost $15,000, enough to repair 9,000 potholes, he said. "Everytime you hit a chuckhole think of Bruce and Fritz."

Watkins, 55, relished the attack for the attention it drew to his ties to the Democratic Party. He turned the charge back on Berkley, who has served both as a county and state GOP chairman, saying, "If tricky Dick Nixon hadn't messed up, he (Berkley) would probably have had him in here campaigning."

It's hard to imagine two more different candidates.

Watkins is a coloful orator with a flamboyant bachelor life style (he has been divorced twice). Berkley is intense, a conservative dresser and dull speaker.

Watkins' reputation is that of a political wheeler-dealer and an outspoken advocate of rights for blacks. Berkley's reputation is that of an honest straight-arrow, a behind-the-scenes compromiser given to indecision.

Watkins is closely identified with organized labor, and was an outspoken opponent of an effort to pass a state right-to-work law last fall. Berkley was neutral on the issue, and his family firm has been accused of using "scab" labor to break a strike in recent years.

Berkley, 47, grew up in wealth. His family owned Tension Envelope Co., and sent him to Harvard, where he earned two degrees. He went to work for the family firm, the nation's second-largest envelope company, and never made any waves until he became active in Republican Party politics in the 1960s. He has been a city councilman since 1969.

Watkins, the son of a railroad cook, is a mortician of modest wealth whose political career has been tied to the city's black community. He grew up poor.

"The advantage I have over my opponent is I have a greater sensitivity to people," he said in an interview. "I've had to fight my way up. He's never had to do that."

Elected to the city council in 1963 as part of a reform ticket, Watkins introduced Kansas City's first public accommodations ordinance, and was a founder of Freedom Inc., a black political organization. He was Jackson County circuit clerk from 1966 to 1973.

Despite his current rhetoric, he has deep feelings about his blackness. In his speeches he frequently mentions Coleman Young, the black mayor of Detroit with whom he served in the Army Air Corps, and Tom Bradley, the black Los Angeles mayor. Both have campaigned for him.

In a revealing interview about how the white power structure reacts to black political success, Watkins told the Kansas City Star three years ago:

"White people hate us for this... They just hate our guts for it. They told us to get into the system and now that we have, they hate us for it."

Ironically. Watkins' political future now depends on white voters. If there is a low voter turnout and white liberals and union members vote for him, he is expected to win. If there is a high voter turnout, he is expected to lose.