Throughout 1980, as a legitimate means of establishing his own leadership and managerial credentials, candidate Ronald Reagan repeatedly told audiences that if California were a separate nation, it would have the seventh largest gross national product in the world. The message was clear: being governor of California, which Reagan had been for eight years, was an important and demanding job that no dippy ideologue could handle.

Because Ronald Reagan was right, a lot of people outside California were rooting very hard this fall for Tom Bradley, the three-term black mayor of Los Angeles, to win that nation-state's governorship. A Bradley administration in Sacramento almost certainly would have provided further proof, to those still needing it, that a black person can effectively lead and manage what would by now be the sixth largest gross national product in the world.

Furthermore, the election of Tom Bradley would have given to those who are not born white or wealthy or pedigreed encouragement and example. The election of Bradley, in a state that is 92 percent non-black, would have been a convincing rebuke to those black politicians whose rhetoric has been consistently anti-coalition and pro-confrontation.

But, by two-thirds of 1 percent of the vote, Tom Bradley lost. He lost to a heavyweight, the conservative Republican attorney general, George Deukmejian. When you win a race that close, as Deukmejian is undoubtedly hearing hourly, every semi-group imaginable, including Formerly Married Agnostics, can and does claim credit for your victory. But only one explanation for the close Bradley defeat is offered: white racism. That is not only wrong, it is also quite damaging to both our politics and our mutual trust, neither of which is exactly invulnerable right now.

Perhaps the most difficult race to run -- as either Hubert Humphrey or Jerry Ford could have told Tom Bradley -- is a campaign to succeed an unpopular incumbent of your own party. Deukmejian, campaigning against Jerry Brown's unpopular judicial appointments, put Democrat Bradley, who is no intimate of Democrat Brown's, on the political defensive. In addition, the anti-Los Angeles sentiment -- no mayor of the state's largest city has been elected governor -- was a political liability. From mayor to governor is not a natural progression in contemporary politics, as New York's Ed Koch could testify from recent experience.

But all published post mortems of California concentrate on the CBS- New York Times exit poll of actual voters, 3 percent of whom admitted their gubernatorial decision was based on race. Three percent of 7.5 million equals 225,000 voters, or more than four times Deukmejian's margin of victory. So there, goes the prevailing post mortem, Bradley lost because of white racism.

Not quite. Race was cited by 3 percent of the voters as the principal factor in their choice for governor, true. Three percent of white voters and 3 percent of black voters. There were 12 times as many white voters as black voters, yet among the entire group that cited race as the principal factor, Bradley lost by only 47 percent to 42 percent, which means some white voters supported Bradley precisely because he is black. In the prevailing post mortem, there is an assumption that most liberals choose not to examine too closely: that either all black voters agreed with the black candidate's positions or that they voted for him because of their race, which is somehow allegedly okay for blacks but not for others.

Bradley in 1982 ran 7 percent ahead of Jerry Brown among white voters. He ran 11 percent ahead of where Jimmy Carter ran with California whites in 1980. Bradley is an able man whose loss is also his state's and nation's loss. But he did not lose to a lightweight like the outgoing GOP lieutenant governor, whom Deukmejian defeated in the primary. And I'm not sure that he would have won if he were white. It would have been close, which may be one of the more positive statements that can be made about the 1982 campaign.