LOS ANGELES -- The brief fascination of California's Democratic elite with the idea of joining Chicago-style, precinct politics to media glitz has begun to fade under pressure from elected officials and candidates who want the maximum amount of cash spent on television advertising.

In contrast, the Republican Party has dumped an estimated $6 million to $7 million into a massive absentee-ballot and get-out-the-vote drive that has the potential to tip the scales if the critically important gubernatorial contest between Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Sen. Pete Wilson remains as close as the polls now suggest. Absentee ballots alone are expected to account for as much as 20 percent of the total vote here on Election Day.

After the 1988 election, the imaginations of key Democratic power brokers ranging from party chairman Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. to a number of the mega-dollar donors who lubricate California's elective process were momentarily captured by the notion that a revived emphasis on the nuts and bolts of politics -- door knocking, phone calls, Election Day car pools -- in a state where television is king could be a powerful weapon to overcome the advantage the GOP has enjoyed in gubernatorial and presidential elections.

Brown, once known as "Governor Moonbeam," won the chairmanship of the California Democratic Party in early 1989 with a platform that sounded more like the creation of a Philadelphia ward leader than an advocate of the "politics of ideas" that characterized his years in the governor's office. Brown hired Marshall Ganz, a veteran organizer for the farm workers union, and Cathryn A. Calfo, who had worked as an organizer for Tom Hayden, to run the operation.

Ganz's tactics paid off in the 1988 election, when a number of political operatives here credit him with putting together a precinct organization that boosted the level of support for Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis 2 percentage points higher than his national average.

Then, in three special elections, Democratic candidates decisively defeated their GOP opponents by using ground troops and direct mail to swamp Republicans with absentee ballots.

More recently, however, a series of strategic and financial decisions has reduced the Democratic registration, get-out-the-vote and absentee-ballot program into a token of what originally was envisaged.

"It is our largest disappointment. It never jelled in the way other states jelled," said Paul Tully, political director of the Democratic National Committee. "In 1992 in California we are going to have to rebuild, not from zero, but not from a good campaign experience. This is where we are not up the hill as far as we should be . . . . Life is messy, and political life in California can be particularly messy."

Brown, citing pressures from the Feinstein campaign to put every available penny into television as well as the multimillion-dollar efforts by state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D) to defeat state redistricting and term-limitation initiatives, said that as party chairman he could not insist on spending large sums on get-out-the-vote efforts.

"The collective judgment was to go to an 'air war' {television} rather than a 'ground war,' and there was no way to change that," he said. In a state where Democratic Party power is fragmented, he continued, "it was not realistic to ask people with their own power bases to make contributions to finance another power base."

Ganz and Calfo have both left their positions as organizers for the party.

In private, a number of sources said that potential major Democratic donors were skeptical of financing the buildup of a party organization that could be used by Brown as a springboard back into statewide competition and of putting money into what clearly would be an ideologically liberal organization under Ganz that would likely challenge many of the businesses, utilities and other interests with strong ties to the legislature.

Ganz is infuriated by what has happened. "I got involved in the Brown {state party chairman} campaign based on the notion that he was committed to building the party, then he pulled the plug . . . . The Republicans seem to be the ones who really learned the lesson from what we did in 1988, and on our side it went right down the tubes."

In a last-minute effort, the state Democratic leadership has hired Larry Tramutola, who has a similar organizing background to Ganz's, to run "Victory 90," the Democratic get-out-the-vote drive in this fall's election. "We have come a long way in a short time," Tramutola said, adding, however, that "you can't plant in the last six weeks and get a harvest."

Although San Bernardino and San Diego counties lean Republican and are not representative counties, the size of the GOP advantage in preliminary absentee-ballot trends suggests a statewide GOP edge in this front of the 1990 ground war: in San Bernardino, as of the beginning of last week, a total of 34,000 Republicans had requested absentee ballots compared to 21,000 Democrats, according to county election officials; in San Diego, 98,000 Republicans had mailed in requests, compared to 49,000 Democrats. Most counties do not keep a running record of the partisan ratios of the applications, but every county reported absentee-ballot applications coming in at a record rate.

Marty Wilson, who is running the California GOP's 'ground war,' said the party has mailed out 6.5 million absentee applications, more than six times the number sent out by the Democrats. Both Republican and Democratic absentee-ballot drives target members of their own parties who are found to be only irregular or occasional voters, especially those who cast ballots only in presidential years. Wilson said as many as two or three applications have been sent to some GOP occasional voters, often with direct-mail appeals on crime and other issues followed up by reminder phone calls.