The day after she won the Democratic gubernatorial primary in California last week, Dianne Feinstein faced a delicate situation.

Her general election opponent, Sen. Pete Wilson (R), began running a television commercial that displayed a letter she wrote to him in 1985, when she was mayor of San Francisco, thanking him for his work in the Senate on behalf of her city. "You're wonderful," Feinstein had gushed in a postscript.

When reporters asked her about the letter, Feinstein was ready with a wry smile. "I guess men like to be called wonderful," she said. "I'm glad he treasures it and wants to keep it."

Shortly before Ann Richards won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Texas this spring, her general election opponent, cowboy-hatted businessman Clayton Williams, paid a visit to President Bush in Washington. The two Texans commiserated about the discomfort of running against a woman.

"Even cowboys get the blues," Richards quipped after being told of Williams's lament. "I don't want to be his mother. I want to be governor of Texas."

Female candidates have been delivering most of the good one-liners this campaign season, and many analysts think that their edge extends beyond repartee.

The politics of gender has changed in 1990. Not only are a record number of women seeking office at all levels of government -- women are running in five of the senatorial and gubernatorial races with the highest stakes -- but the values, issues, demographics and ambiance of campaigns are shifting in ways favorable to women.

"It's really our time; you can feel it," said Sharon Rodine, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, who is especially enthusiastic about the prospect that women have a chance to break through the "glass ceiling" that has so far kept them out of the top posts in big states such as Texas and California.

While many experts agree that women are more likely to continue a 20-year pattern of incremental gains in November rather than register sweeping breakthroughs, many also believe that the playing field of politics has tilted toward women. They cite as key factors:

Values. For years, polling has shown that voters of both sexes -- by margins of between 10 and 20 percentage points -- consider female politicians to be more honest and possess more integrity than their male counterparts. By similar margins, male politicians are considered tougher, more decisive and better equipped to handle crises. These gender stereotypes have not changed much, but their relative importance has.

In an era of galloping cynicism about politicians, "women can much more credibly present themselves as not representing politics as usual, and that's a big help," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. She added: "What's really exciting about the crop of women candidates this year is that so many have already been in office for a long time. So in a sense they have the best of both worlds. Voters don't like back-room politics but they think that's where most of the work is done. The test for these women will be to show they can been effective in the back room but not get bought off by what goes on there."

Issues. Nothing has scrambled the 1990 political landscape more than last summer's Supreme Court decision allowing states to limit abortion, which has activated formerly complacent abortion-rights supporters, who form the majority of the electorate. While candidates of both sexes have benefited when they support abortion rights, female candidates appear to have the most to gain. In California, for example, while the differences were slight between the abortion-rights positions of Feinstein and her Democratic primary opponent, Attorney General John Van de Kamp, exit polls showed that Feinstein won by 57 to 39 percent among voters who support abortion rights.

The thaw in the Cold War also has helped women. "It means that issues where women are strong -- education, health care and the environment -- are surging to the fore, while areas where they have traditionally been weak -- defense and national security -- are getting less important," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall. Democratic pollster Lake offered a caveat: "I think the shift has started, but I don't think we'll see it swing all the way until 1992."

Demographics. In every election before 1980, men voted in greater numbers, proportionate to their percentage of the adult population, than women. In every election since then, women have -- and the gap is growing. In 1988, a record 6.8 million more women than men voted for president. In California, cited by both parties as the most important gubernatorial race this November, there are 700,000 more women than men registered to vote.

So far, there has been little evidence that female voters are more prone to support female candidates; the "gender gap" of the 1980s has had to do with the partisan -- not gender -- preferences of women voters. In every election during the decade, women voted 6 to 8 percentage points more Democratic than men. But many analysts now believe the reproductive rights issue may lead to a greater affinity of women voters for female candidates. "The key is whether women candidates can use that issue to mobilize younger women to vote," Lake said. "Right now, they are the most 'pro-choice' but the least likely to vote."

Ambiance. "In an age of muckball politics, when campaigns turn into back-and-forth attacks on each candidate's integrity, women have a clear edge," Democratic pollster Peter Hart said.

"Men are having a real hard time figuring out how to run against women in this environment," agreed Michele Davis, director of the Republican Governors Association. "They haven't cracked the code yet. Women candidates can get away with more."

In Texas this spring, Richards, a recovering alcoholic, refused to answer questions about whether she had abused drugs as well as alcohol. "It was more credible for a woman to take the high road, to say she was refusing to discuss this matter out of conscience," said Robert Squier, her media consultant.

Texas is almost a parody of the battle of the sexes. Williams has created a stir by making a joking reference to rape and describing how he was "serviced" by prostitutes as a young West Texas cowboy. Richards is expected to use her sharp wit this fall to try to portray him as a throwback. "The key for a woman candidate is to use humor in a way that gives away none of her femininity but takes advantage of all of it," Squier said. "It can never be harsh or unseemly, but it still can draw blood."

Davis counters that the race will be about who can more effectively handle the state's economy. Williams, a millionaire entrepreneur, starts with more credibility on that front and holds an 8-point poll lead.

In addition to Texas and California, female candidates are competitive for governorships this year in Oregon, Alaska and Massachusetts. Two of the three female governors are stepping down -- Vermont's Madeleine Kunin (D) and Arizona's Rose Mofford (D) -- and the third, Nebraska's Kay Orr (R), faces a tough reelection fight.

In the Senate, the three best chances the GOP has to pick up Democratic seats are in races that pit a female member of the House against a male senator: Rep. Pat Saiki (R) in Hawaii against Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D), who was appointed to complete the term of the late Spark Matsunaga (D); Rep. Lynn Martin (R) in Illinois against Sen. Paul Simon (D); and Rep. Claudine Schneider (R) in Rhode Island against Sen. Claiborne Pell (D). Four other women are running for the Senate, which now has two female members.

Although filing deadlines have not yet passed in some states, the evidence so far suggests that the abortion issue has sparked a record number of women's candidacies for state legislatures.

In 1971, 2.8 percent of all members of Congress were women; today, 5.6 percent are. In 1971, 4.7 percent of all state legislators were women; today, 17.2 percent are. In 1971, 1 percent of all mayors were women; today, 12.7 percent are.

"Because politics and governmental institutions are still populated overwhelmingly by men who are incumbents and heir apparents, women are still fighting to get in," said Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. "I expect the pattern of incremental gains to continue this year. What's new is that, because more women are serving in lower offices, more are ready to break into the top ranks of senators and governors." Staff researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.