A debate over whether to debate, an increasingly frequent and some say tiresome element of U.S. politics, broke out in the California governor's race yesterday with Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Sen. Pete Wilson tossing conflicting and seemingly irreconcilable proposals at each other.

When Wilson returned to Washington last week, the two sides agreed to postpone their second and last debate until today. With Wilson still stuck in the Senate budget impasse, Feinstein agreed to let him debate by satellite, but the San Francisco station that agreed to carry the confrontation said it could not make the necessary technical adjustments. A San Diego station offered to substitute, but yesterday Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, rejected the offer, saying she had promised at least one debate in northern California.

"That's ridiculous," Wilson spokesman Bill Livingstone said. "She's ducking the debate for some reason." If she did not debate today, he said, there would be no second debate.

Feinstein spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers called that response "unfortunate" and said Feinstein is willing to debate at several times next week suggested by a San Francisco station. "This indicates that he thinks he lost the first debate," Myers said of Wilson.

The two sides appear committed to a bitter final two weeks. Feinstein Tuesday began running three negative commercials attacking Wilson for missing Senate votes, failing to match her San Francisco anticrime record when he was San Diego mayor and costing San Diego taxpayers money through delayed sewage treatment work.

Wilson's campaign, which has been running an ad calling Feinstein soft on tax increases, challenged the Feinstein spots and said they reflected her desperation. Wilson aides said the Democrat was trailing Wilson by nine percentage points in their polls.