SAN FRANCISCO -- Bright, sunlit clouds distracted other passengers in the small chartered jet flying north, but the Democratic candidate for governor of California remained absorbed in an off-the-record conversation about some children she knew.

It was odd that Dianne Feinstein was reluctant to publicize the topic since it was the same day she held news conferences at public schools in both southern and northern California to receive the endorsement of the California Teachers Association and promote her expertise on the young and on education.

But the children she was discussing, the ones who call her unlisted number for advice and comfort, were not part of her campaign, she said. She had met them at the Hunters Point projects where she had been working, reading stories and sharing confidences, nearly every Thursday for years.

Her private enthusiasm and commitment on this subject, if bottled and sold on television, might be worth a percentage point or two in the polls, but Feinstein, 57, a former San Francisco mayor, does things differently than many politicians. She likes to keep the private and public aspects of her life in a tenuous balance, a juggling act that has produced some of the most appealing, and the most perilous, facets of her drive to become California's first female governor, and, incidentally, an automatic contender for national office.

With less than six weeks left in her uncomfortably close race with Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, Feinstein and her staff appear determined to rise or fall on her differences -- her history as a political maverick, her outspoken feminism, her challenges to national Democratic doctrine -- and hope the voters will see Wilson as a conventional politician worthy of rejection.

On the plane trip to San Francisco, her press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, celebrated the primary victory of Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Silber, an aggressive foe of that state's political establishment. Myers predicted Feinstein would stir the same juices in the California electorate. "People are feeling more and more like politicians don't pay any attention to them," Myers said. "They have no stake in keeping the status quo, and we have to go and make them believe that Dianne is going to shake things up."

There are certainly unusual facets to Feinstein, as there are to Wilson, a more interesting man than his greyish popular image suggests. Feinstein has kept her years of work at Hunters Point, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of her city, out of her speeches for fear of making the effort seem cheap and self-serving. She agreed to allow a mention of the airplane conversation only after repeated appeals. Although proud of her administrative ability, she has resisted advancing quick answers to state problems and does not hesitate to embrace a Wilson proposal, such as moving social services into the schools, when she thinks it makes sense.

But her resistance until recently to some questions about her financier husband's business dealings has given Republicans ammunition. The need to rely on a $3 million loan from her own resources in a difficult fund-raising year has been troublesome and may have limited her ability to inject more personal money into the campaign when it is most needed.

After months of hesitation, Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum, released a list of his investment clients in August and answered questions at two lengthy news conferences. These produced stories about some Blum investments not publicly reported by Feinstein, about a brief federal inquiry into possible insider trading and about a Republican lawsuit complaining that the personal loans to the campaign violated state rules. But the state Fair Political Practices Commission ruled the loans were legal, and news coverage of Blum's finances has diminished.

Blum, said to be more liberal politically than his wife, shrugs off the GOP attacks as the predictable annoyances of politics. "I think people are tired of a lot of these cheap shots," he said.

But in a race this close -- most polls show Feinstein and Wilson tied -- anything might have an impact. Countering GOP attempts to besmirch her finances, the Feinstein campaign has tried to taint Wilson as a souless bureaucrat, part of a system that needs changing, and perhaps tempt him to move even further away from the conservative core of California Republicans whose ambivalence could decide the election.

"She is the outsider, the maverick," said Feinstein campaign director Bill Carrick, who with his partner, Hank Morris, created the dramatic February television spot that erased an 18-point deficit in the polls during the Democratic primary. Wilson, Carrick said, "is the classic career politician."

In the competition to fix the opponent's image, the Feinstein camp portrays Wilson as an operator, the man who, Myers said, "campaigned for reelection in 1988 as providing needed seniority in Washington and then a few weeks later comes back and says the party needs me as governor. What the people don't want right now is an opportunistic politician who pads his resume."

Feinstein takes a somewhat gentler approach, telling audiences Wilson "is a continuation of the Deukmejian legacy, and is not going to give us a capacity for change."

Bruce Cain, professor of political science at the University of California-Berkeley, said it would be difficult to tarnish Wilson by connecting him to outgoing Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, since Deukmejian's job ratings have been high. Wilson is a less conservative Republican who favors abortion rights and rejects Deukmejian's hard line against new taxes. A Feinstein attack on Deukmejian's less popular stands, such as his effort to cut some education and health funds, might tempt Wilson to point out those differences, which could in turn hurt him with conservative Republicans who seem uncertain and uneasy about his candidacy.

Robert Forsyth, press secretary to state Senate president David A. Roberti (D), predicted the race will eventually turn on Feinstein's personality, her ability to project verve and humanity on television. She did well against her primary opponent, Attorney General John Van de Kamp, in two debates despite Van de Kamp's better grasp of the issues, Forsyth said, and in the two scheduled October debates with Wilson, that experience may help.

She will also have to survive a punishing schedule of fund-raisers, hitting dozens of gatherings to match the $2 million Wilson raised in two events with President Bush. Feinstein said she has been outspent 3-to-1 on television, "but we'll make our media buys. We scramble at the end of every week to do it, but we're doing it."

Feinstein's fund-raising problems may have been at least temporarily eased by a federal court decision this week that overturned California's $1,000 contribution limit.

All of this has kept her away from Hunters Point for several weeks, and she has only the telephone to keep track of the children and try to help them leap what she sees as a mysterious chasm, at age 9 or 10, when their eagerness for learning can turn to apathy and anger.

"We've seen some successes, and we've seen some failures too," Blum said. "But it's something she's determined to do."