LOS ANGELES -- After months of suspense, the volatile California Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign has drawn to the sort of television finish many had expected: State Attorney General John Van de Kamp is being pilloried for failing to convict a famous murderer; former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein is being called too close to big business, and both are worrying about the well-funded Republican assault that awaits the winner.

Late polls suggest Feinstein has an edge over Van de Kamp in the Tuesday primary. She moved to stay ahead -- and blunt a last-minute attack on her insurance industry ties -- by airing a long-awaited commercial reminding voters that her opponent tried to drop murder charges in 1981 against one of the two "Hillside Stranglers," Angelo Buono, who was later convicted.

Some Democrats said they worried about what the acidic primary would do to the party's image as it tries to keep Sen. Pete Wilson (R), who has raised $10.5 million, out of the governor's chair. For a party that has had great success controlling the state legislature, the congressional delegation and most statewide offices, California Democrats see the last eight years without a Democratic governor as a disturbing blemish and the prospect of four years of Wilson as a serious threat to their future.

Party Chairman Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. and the many Democratic legislators whose seats are at stake may breathe easier if two Republican-backed redistricting schemes fail to win majorities on Tuesday's ballot. But even if Propositions 118 and 119 are disposed of, the party has other problems.

Brown, a former governor, won praise for organizing intense get-out-the-vote and absentee ballot drives that recently won three special legislative elections. The campaigns and party staff work were expensive, however, and Brown's organization has little money left to give the Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

Brown said it is "hard to say" if the absentee ballot and other schemes that worked in legislative campaigns would be mounted in the governor's race. He said he would call party and campaign leaders together to discuss it after the primary.

Of the party organization, Democratic campaign consultant Kam Kuwata said, "We know there's a pulse, but we're not sure if the patient will be saved." Another veteran consultant complimented Brown's legislative successes but said he was stunned when the party headquarters staff was asked to stand for recognition at a recent fund-raiser and, in an example of headquarters overstaffing, "four tables of people stood up. Four tables!"

A Republican campaign official said he thinks Wilson has an advantage not only because of his wealthier organization but because of the lack of a clear message and strategy from the national Democratic Party. He said he found it significant that no top party banquet speakers have yet been enlisted to help raise funds here. "There've been no stars," he said. "No {New York Gov. Mario M.} Cuomo, no {Sen. Bill} Bradley {D-N.J.}."

At the same time, some of the California party's own stars have fallen or dimmed. The resignation of Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) after allegations of unethical conduct and the Senate investigation of Sen. Alan Cranston's alleged role in the national savings and loan scandal have robbed Democrats here of the full use of two of their best fund-raisers. New campaign financing rules have limited the ability of Sacramento powers such as Assembly Speaker Willie Brown to fill the gap.

"The party in the legislature has had its sails trimmed, and they have had to fight the redistricting initiatives. That has been their principal focus," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior associate of the Claremont Graduate School's Center for Politics and Policy.

This strikes some party veterans as too pessimistic. Los Angeles deputy city attorney John Emerson, a former deputy national campaign chairman for Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, conceded that a victory for the GOP redistricting initiatives would be a serious blow to Democratic legislators, but he noted that the party holds all statewide constitutional offices but governor and treasurer. With a strong gubernatorial candidate and with Brown's energetic sister Kathleen running for treasurer, "it is possible that there is going to be a Democratic Party sweep."

Brown himself said he senses "a growing vitality in the party and a corresponding exhaustion on the part of the Republicans." He said he thought the GOP had responded feebly to a series of Democratic-backed commercials calling the redistricting initiatives a power grab by big business. The Republicans are suffering from "political entropy," he said. "It shows they are getting soft because of their longstanding control of the executive branch."

Yet Brown and every other Democrat interviewed acknowledged that the Democratic Party would have an enormous financial handicap in this year's governor's race. Republicans know how much they lost a decade ago without a GOP governor to veto the Democratic redistricting plan after the 1980 census. Wilson should be able to spend at least $15 million, and some consultants predict as much as $20 million, while Democrats wonder if they can raise $10 million.

Emerson said a new media focus on the race may close the gap somewhat. "The importance of money declines with the visibility of the race," he said.

Kuwata said the party lost a chance for positive coverage of its primary candidates when they began attacking each other early, but he anticipates after the primary more of the favorable "puff pieces" that help a party, particularly if Feinstein wins. "I can see Time or Newsweek covers, with her and other female candidates, declaring this the political year of women," he said.

A Republican consultant also acknowledged that the "Big Green" environmental initiative on the November ballot, drafted by Van de Kamp but supported by Feinstein, will help the Democrats in the fall. Wilson, despite a strong environmental record, has listened to agricultural industry critics of the initiative and come out against it.

Joseph R. Cerrell, a Democratic campaign consultant who once served as state party executive director, said many Democrats compare the party's current status unfavorably to the early 1960s, when Brown's father, Pat, was governor and the California Democratic Council, a volunteer organization founded by Cranston, mobilized thousands of volunteers for liberal causes. Even then, Cerrell said, "it still was the individual campaign" that won the governor's race, not a massive infusion of aid from the party.

As for the notion that Van de Kamp's and Feinstein's last-minute attacks risk party unity and victory over Wilson, many Democrats can remember much worse clashes. "It's not that rancorous," said Emerson, compared to the bitterness between presidential primary supporters of President Jimmy Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1980 or Hart and former vice president Walter F. Mondale in 1984.

"It's not all that bad," Cerrell agreed. "I don't see anybody who needs a tourniquet to stop the bleeding."