PASADENA, Calif. -- Except for a bicycle or two snatched from the back yard, we have never been burglarized -- the result, I suppose, of good luck, watchful neighbors and having a family so large and television prone that our house is rarely empty.

But like most Californians, and urban and suburban Americans anywhere, we avidly read the local crime news, grumble about early release of violent felons and secretly enjoy watching Clint Eastwood pulverize the rules of due process in pursuit of his man. Two years ago we even bought a security system.

Our excuse was that we had lost our live-in housekeeper and felt we needed a little more protection. But there was also in the back of my mind that murky dread that once again has become an important factor in California politics, particularly in the close contest between the two major gubernatorial candidates: Sen. Pete Wilson (R) and former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein (D).

Their anti-crime commercials are so thick that I have seen the Feinstein 30-second spot -- celebrating her support for the death penalty despite boos from state convention Democrats -- immediately follow the Wilson spot castigating her as someone who "didn't lift a finger for the crime victims initiative."

Wilson spent most of his Labor Day campaign kick-off emphasizing crime. Surrounded by correctional officers at a picnic near the state prison at Folsom, he said, "We cannot have a California, in which we call ourselves a civilized state, where women fear the night."

Pollster Mervin Field notes that women's growing fear of crime in the last 30 years tipped state polls in favor of the death penalty.

Wilson's theme appears to have helped erase much of Feinstein's advantage among female voters and given him a very slight edge in the latest polls.

But Feinstein has moved quickly to neutralize the issue by advertising her close ties to police in San Francisco, her success in cutting that city's crime rate and her endorsement by the California Association of Highway Patrolmen (one of the few law enforcement organizations not to endorse Wilson).

One Democratic consultant suggested a likely Feinstein ploy, perfect for two planned October television debates: "She can ask, 'Do you feel safer now after eight years of a Republican {outgoing George Deukmejian} as governor?' "

This underscores the feeble influence politicians have on crime rates, even when playing to the widespread voter fear of burglary and assault. Deukmejian won votes by demonizing former state Supreme Court chief justice Rose E. Bird, a death penalty foe, and by building prisons. But the state murder rate has gone up 20 percent since 1983, the first year of his administration, and most analysts agree with Jerome H. Skolnick, Boalt Hall law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, that the death penalty is little more than a "moral incantation" with no impact on overall crime.

Commander William Booth of the Los Angeles police force said street gang drive-by shootings are one form of murder that can be controlled with aggressive patrols and more officers. The two candidates have nibbled at this issue, Wilson pushing for more federal anti-drug resources in Southern California and Feinstein endorsing a half-cent sales tax increase in part to help put more police on the streets.

But their 30-second spots dwell on more emotional matters.

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters created a stir last week by arguing that California crime was decreasing. This fact was being kept "a big secret," he said, by the "crime industry" of police, lawyers, burglar alarm salesmen and politicians, who find popular fears of rape and robbery useful and profitable. Walters weakened his argument somewhat by comparing current crime rates to 1980, a flood-tide year for felonies, and ignoring the warnings of experts like Skolnick about the large number of still unreported crimes.

But there is little doubt that the hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent on political commercials will have little impact on shootings in south-central Los Angeles, and neither candidate is likely to dissuade any burglar who decides my house is an easy mark.

What the gubernatorial candidates offer is a promise of security, not security itself. They are not unlike my 13-year-old son, Peter, who, short of summer cash, suggested making copies of the security system company's sign near our front porch and selling them to all our unprotected neighbors, cheap.