In a state known for complex multicandidate primaries and murky intraparty squabbling, the 1986 race for governor has become unexpectedly, stunningly clear: George Deukmejian versus Tom Bradley, no holds barred from now until the Nov. 4 election.

Two men of such different parties and backgrounds might seem to offer the kind of stark choice that California voters have grown accustomed to, but in the last few months the incumbent Republican governor (Deukmejian) and the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles (Bradley) have strangely grown closer.

The primary opponents that dogged them before their 1982 clash are nowhere to be seen. The polls have them neck and neck and, listening to their recent speeches, it is not difficult to understand why.

In 1982, when Deukmejian defeated Bradley by less than a percentage point, the Republican trumpeted his record as a law-and-order attorney general who wrote one of the state's death penalty statutes. Bradley, when asked about capital punishment, said only that he would enforce the law.

This week, Bradley told 100 inmates at the San Francisco County Jail that without the death penalty, "all of us will be living in the jungle with no security, no protection."

"I have seen far too many people killed," said Bradley, a former police lieutenant. "I have seen far too much violence in our society. I see some of it today with people who have no compassion, no concern, no idea of the consequence of their acts."

In 1982, Bradley won more votes at the polling booths than Deukmejian, but lost the race in a flood of absentee ballots prompted in part by a Republican campaign to kill a gun control initiative that Bradley supported. This month, Bradley told a local television interviewer that he would no longer support gun control because voters had so clearly expressed their distaste for it.

Both men have created solid images as intelligent and careful administrators, with none of the flash of former governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. but little of his capacity for mistakes either.

Mervin Field's most recent California Poll shows voters giving Bradley and Deukmejian high ratings: 68 percent speak positively of Deukmejian and 71 percent of Bradley. The month-old survey shows the governor ahead, 51 to 43 percent, but given the poll's 4 percentage point margin of error and an earlier survey giving Bradley a 6-point edge, Field concludes that "the contest is likely to be closely fought."

With the leadership of the nation's most populous state up for grabs, these two similar politicians have begun to behave like meticulous, jealous housekeepers looking for dust on each other's mantels.

In his state-of-the-state speech Thursday, Deukmejian lauded the benefits of international trade and proposed more money to promote farm exports and establish special trade offices in London and Tokyo. In a statement yesterday, Bradley, recently returned from an overseas trip to promote Los Angeles businesses, said, "We need a leader who will fight for California overseas, not someone who doesn't even have a passport."

Larry Thomas, Deukmejian's press secretary, said the governor has long promoted foreign trade, but "we will concede that Mayor Bradley has taken more junkets than the governor."

Deukmejian asked for another injection of money into the troubled public school system, noting that his proposal would increase education's share of the general fund from 44 percent eight years ago to 55 percent. Bradley immediately called the governor "a tag-along leader on education" who last year vetoed programs he now supports.

Deukmejian emphasized his "deep disappointment" that the Democratic-controlled legislature had not approved his plan to reorganize state agencies charged with handling California's massive toxic waste problem. Bradley accused Deukmejian of creating a "toxicgate" of mishandled programs, and noted that federal investigators are reviewing the state's records.

With 10 months of such feverish repartee still to come until Election Day, political consultants here wonder at the impact of some intangible, usually unmentioned issue such as race. Bradley is trying to become the first popularly elected black governor in U.S. history.

Analysts still argue over whether his race helped or hurt him in 1982, but a tasteless joke by a rural county supervisor last month indicated that the issue is still on some people's minds.

"What does the mayor and Humphrey the whale have in common?" Modoc County Supervisor Mick Jones said in introducing the 6-foot-4 Bradley. "They're both big, they're both black and neither made it to Sacramento."

Whatever their race, Democrats running in California this year may find that their campaigns rise or fall on a volatile side issue, the future of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose E. Bird. The polls indicate that voters are likely to reject Bird's reconfirmation because of her refusal to endorse any of the dozens of death penalty sentences reviewed by the court.

Bird, a former Democratic state cabinet officer appointed to the court by Brown, has been warmly endorsed by Bradley in the past. Deukmejian has announced that he will vote to unseat her, but Bradley has delayed his announcement. He told reporters Wednesday that his advisers "are trying to look at all facets of the issue."

The next day, in his state-of-the-state speech, Deukmejian turned up the heat on the issue that may decide the race:

"Since I authored the death penalty law nearly a decade ago," he said, "24,000 men, women and children have been willfully killed in our state. Juries have, by unanimous decisions, imposed the death penalty over 200 times -- yet not one killer has paid the ultimate price. The California Supreme Court has seen to that."