LOS ANGELES, OCT. 7 -- Locked in a dead-even race for the governorship of California, Sen. Pete Wilson (R) tonight used the campaign's first televised debate to launch a surprise attack on opponent Dianne Feinstein (D) by endorsing a ballot initiative that would severely limit the terms of Feinstein's supporters in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

Wilson said he had found voters frustrated with lack of action in the legislature on several issues and had decided to endorse Proposition 140 "because it may be the only way we can make basic change in Sacramento."

Wilson's endorsement of the proposition, which would impose lifetime limits of eight years on statewide elected officials and senators and six years on Assembly members, reflected growing feeling within his campaign that the

2-to-1 popular support for the measure can be translated into the edge he needs against Feinstein. "They've decided it's a game-breaker," said one source close to the campaign.

The surprise announcement, made about two-thirds of the way through an hour-long debate full of attacks and counterattacks, put Feinstein in a difficult position. Some of the strongest opponents of Proposition 140 -- Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Senate President David Roberti (D-Los Angeles) -- are her allies. But the former San Francisco mayor moved quickly to toss the explosive issue back at Wilson.

"Senator, I don't believe that that makes basic change. You see, you don't have term limits on lobbyists; you don't have term limits on bureaucrats," she said, and noted that President Ronald Reagan had also opposed term limits.

Wilson noted that Brown and

Roberti had been in the assembly "a total of 50 years," and blamed legislative inaction for criminal laws that had allowed the release from prison after seven years of a man who had raped a woman and chopped her arms off. "I am not beholden" to the powers in the legislature, he said. "I do not owe Willie. I do not owe David."

In the sharpest exchange of the debate, Feinstein quickly responded: "Well, senator, if you really feel you can't handle Willie Brown or David Roberti, then stay in Washington. I'll handle them. . . . I'll propose a tough crime agenda."

"Oh, I'll handle them," Wilson said.

The debate, televised statewide, is one of only two planned in the campaign, and its importance was increased by the close margin between the candidates. As expected, both portrayed themselves as agents of change and activist government. Both seemed self-assured, Feinstein showing occasional emotion and Wilson responding with dry sarcasm, and neither appeared to make any serious mistakes.

Feinstein early in the debate chided Wilson for remaining in California to campaign while the Senate was in session and suggested that he had one of the worst attendance records in the Senate. Wilson replied, "I have an excellent attendance record," and raised the issue of "15 junkets" Feinstein allegedly took while she was mayor of San Francisco.

Wilson sharply criticized Feinstein for taking a $150,000 contribution from the association representing highway patrol officers, saying it would compromise a governor's dealings with that organization on salary and other issues.

Feinstein called for more funds from the state lottery to go to education, an idea Wilson said had depressed lottery earning in other states.

The candidates were otherwise cordial, although Wilson continued to call Feinstein "Dianne" while she refered to him as "Senator Wilson." The 6 p.m. debate may not have had many viewers, however, since its competition included the baseball playoffs and a Los Angeles Raiders football game.