The two candidates had always been resourceful campaigners who quickly seized the best issues. Their admirers expected to see two intelligent men run a close race, with control of the U.S. Senate potentially at stake.

So why, as the first measure of their mutual quick-wittedness after primary victories, did Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edwin V.W. Zschau (R-Calif.) find themselves in the chill morning air of a West Los Angeles park, flipping pancakes and buttering waffles for the benefit of a small pack of red-eyed reporters and a few bewildered joggers?

Because in California, television rules politics. Cranston started it, inviting the cameras to an "Ed Zschau Memorial Flip-Flop Pancake Breakfast." Not to be outdone, Zschau (pronounced like shout without the "t") quickly set up his own breakfast nearby to accuse the Democratic incumbent of "waffling" on various issues.

So it has gone, back and forth, with points scored by both sides in a battle for the minds of news directors and editors that will not end until a climactic series of televised debates expected near the end of the campaign.

Cranston, 72, wants to win a fourth term, something no California senator has done since Hiram Johnson represented the state from 1917 to 1945. In Zschau, 46, he faces the most formidable Republican opponent ever. Despite a costly and unsuccessful 1984 presidential campaign, Cranston has prepared well for the contest. He expects to spend $10 million and has $1.4 million in the bank. Zschau, a former electronics firm president with enviable business contacts, went through $3.4 million in winning a close primary and mounting a first post-primary television blitz. Now he must hustle to refill a campaign chest that contained only $30,000 on June 30.

Mervin Field's California poll reported Zschau running 9 percentage points behind Cranston just before the primary. Cranston campaign press secretary Kam Kuwata said his side's polls show an even larger lead for the incumbent at the moment, but Zschau has won the endorsement of his conservative primary foes, including broadcaster Bruce Herschensohn, who finished second in the primary.

Many Democrats fear Zschau because, unlike every other senate opponent Cranston has faced, the two-term congressman comes from the pragmatic middle of the Republican Party and appeals to many Democrats and independents.

"A lot of people are disenchanted with Cranston," said one liberal Democratic organizer who has found conservative Democrat friends drawn to Zschau. The Republican supports the Equal Rights Amendment and a woman's right to chose an abortion, while calling for budget cuts and probusiness programs. Many strategists say the mix of liberal views on social issues and conservative views on fiscal matters is likely to attract young professionals who once supported Cranston, although one postprimary poll showed Zschau trailing by 13 points among voters under age 44.

"I'm a businessman who felt he could make a difference, who's gone into public service for that purpose," Zschau said in an interview. "That's opposed to somebody who's been in politics for a long time, who's been through the 70s and now the 80s, with all those government programs."

Always quick to see opportunities in what others might consider problems, Cranston has lept on Zschau's modern flexibility and labeled it old-fashioned opportunism. "Mr. Zschau doesn't have the courage of his nonconvictions," Cranston said at the "flip-flop" breakfast. He recited shifting Zschau positions on child nutrition, nuclear testing, nuclear freeze, pay equity, chemical weapons, the MX missile, antisatellite weapons, apartheid, military waste, civil rights and aid to the rebel forces in Nicaragua.

In this early part of the campaign, Cranston has had particular success highlighting Zschau's record on the issue of support for Israel. When Cranston began to focus on a vote by Zschau to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, the congressman made a quick trip to Israel and returned to call a Los Angeles news conference surrounded by Jewish supporters.

Kuwata points to the exchange as one sign of Cranston's ability to keep Zschau, and his usually aggressive campaign manager, Ron Smith, off balance and on the defensive. To Mickey Kantor, a well-connected Democratic attorney here, the Israel episode illustrated that Zschau "has no philosophy. Alan Cranston is somebody who believes in something, and that is Ronald Reagan's strength."

Few Republicans and independents, who used to vote for Cranston in large numbers, are likely to see much similarity between the president and the senator.

Cranston has established an indelible impression as a senator who can squeeze money out of Washington for home state projects. Now, in deficit-conscious times, Zschau is quick to use that against him. "We've got to have leadership and tough decisions on spending in order to bring down the federal budget deficit," Zschau said. "And the contrast of my position on that with Sen. Cranston's is pretty stark."

Zschau has begun to regain initiative, tweaking Cranston for refusing to commit himself on the reconfirmation of controversial state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird and generating headlines with complaints that Cranston spent $4.8 million in taxpayers' money for constituent mailings in the last 18 months.

Kuwata shrugged it off. "It works out to the equivalent of about one postage stamp per constituent per year," he said. "We are pleased about the way things are going."