Each weekday as she is driven to City Hall, Dianne Feinstein keeps an eye out for little blemishes on San Francisco's spectacular landscape. Spotting a derelict sprawled on a street corner, she asks her driver to have him picked up by a patrol car. Observing a pothole, she notes its location. "People who take pride in where they live have a greater sense of dignity," says Feinstein, 51, the city's spit-and-polish mayor since 1978, and no one is prouder than she. For months she has been helping San Francisco dress up for the Democratic National Convention that will be her showcase as well as the city's. Streets have been repaved, parks are awash with red, white and blue blossoms and the famous little cable cars—the system having been rebuilt for $60 million—are once again running halfway to the stars.

A moderate Democrat and a longtime supporter of Walter Mondale, Madam Mayor has never admitted publicly that she would like to be her party's vice-presidential nominee, but if people speculate, well, she seems to enjoy it. Though most strategists regard a Mondale-Feinstein ticket as the longest of long shots, the mayor is regarded as a potential national figure. She is flattered but unwilling to appear overeager. "All I've ever wanted to be is a good mayor," she says. "This is not a job I want to sacrifice for political gain. I worked too hard to get here."

In fact Feinstein (pronounced Finestine) twice ran for the office and lost. When her husband died in April 1978, she seriously considered quitting politics. Then one Monday in November she returned from vacation to her job as president of the city's Board of Supervisors. She was looking for former Supervisor Dan White, who had resigned from the board and was furious over Mayor George Moscone's refusal to reappoint him. Suddenly an enraged White charged past her door into the office of Supervisor Harvey Milk. Five gunshots rang out, Feinstein was the first to reach Milk's side. "I tried to get his pulse and my finger went through a bullet hole in his wrist," she says. "Then I learned that George had also been shot." Still clad in her bloodstained skirt, Feinstein summoned the press and calmly announced the deaths of her colleagues. "It was like Scarlett O'Hara rising from the ruins," says a reporter. "The city seemed to be falling apart. You know Dianne was hurting, but she really stood tall."

A year after assuming the role of Moscone's successor, San Francisco's first woman mayor was elected to the job in her own right. In the interim she had served with distinction. "It was a terrible time," she says. "I had my own personal loss to overcome. There were rumors that Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple had left behind a death squad to kill his enemies in the Bay Area. We had a hotel strike, a school strike, riots in the gay community. I was emotionally wiped out, but the people around me infused me with the necessary adrenaline."

Given San Francisco's turbulent ethnic and sexual makeup, Feinstein's success in governing may seem paradoxical. Whereas Moscone was a charismatic political animal, Feinstein had always seemed very much—perhaps too much—the lady. "Initially I felt a little like a fish out of water," she concedes. "I was insecure about the job. I wanted to do it, but could I earn public respect and get people to produce? It has taken me a long time to say I believe that I can." Though neckties have replaced T-shirts at City Hall, Feinstein has retained most of Moscone's staff and drives them as ferociously as she drives herself. "Moscone's style gave a chaotic look to his office," says Feinstein's fiscal deputy, Ray Sullivan, who also worked for Moscone. "He could bring people together, but he couldn't get them to produce. Mayor Feinstein won staff respect by asking good questions, listening to advice and proving she could do the job."

When Feinstein came to office, the city was facing the possibility of a huge deficit from diminished tax revenues. Acting on the advice of a committee of businessmen formed to study municipal operations, she raised hotel and payroll taxes and modernized antiquated fiscal practices. A few weeks ago she proudly announced a $122 million surplus in a $1.6 billion budget package—this despite the fact that she has added more than 350 officers to San Francisco's police force and increased neighborhood foot patrols, helping to cut the city's crime rate by 10 percent last year. Under her stewardship the city's troubled transit system has shown improved on-time performance, and when she found it necessary to raise the bus fare from 25 cents to 50 cents, she held a series of neighborhood meetings to persuade her constituents to support the measure. "We all want to be popular," she says, "but it's my job to get things done. Sometimes you have to drip away at the stone."

Most surprisingly, the apparently straitlaced matron has reached a kind of accommodation with the gay community. She is the first San Francisco mayor to hire an openly gay administrative assistant, has appointed 16 avowed homosexuals to city offices and has obtained increased local and federal funding for AIDS treatment and research. Still, she vetoed a 1982 "domestic partnership" bill that would have provided insurance benefits for the live-in lovers of city employees. And she infuriated some gays when she recently sent undercover police into the city's bathhouses to report on sexual incidents that could contribute to the spread of AIDS. "It was shocking," says Paul Boneberg, president of the Stonewall Gay Democratic Club. "She has so many friends in the gay community, she could have asked them what was going on. She is a brilliant politician and she has been responsive to the gay community, but then she has owed us more. We supported her in the 1979 election."

Though she is respected rather than loved by gays, no one questions her commitment to tolerance. Her rent stabilization commissioner, Ralph Payne, who is gay, recalls a typical incident. "She had hired an attractive piano player for a party she gave. Being the matchmaker she is, Dianne asked him if he was married. Later, when most people had gone, a very powerful department head said something like 'You know, Dianne, that guy was a queer.' She just tore into him for his lack of sensitivity. Thinking at the time we were all heterosexual, she was saying what she believed to be right."

Despite such occasional shows of warmth, even heat, Feinstein has had to deal with an image problem. Suffering by comparison with the gregarious Moscone, she has seemed cooler, more aloof, almost prudish. "George had soul as in soul brother," says Supervisor Richard Hongisto. "You could find him in the ghetto eating ribs. You would find Dianne in the roof restaurant of the Fairmont Hotel eating filet mignon with béarnaise sauce." Maybe so, but Feinstein isn't apologizing. "I'm only one person," she says, "a straight, middle-class, well-educated native San Franciscan. I can't have been part of every other culture, but that doesn't mean I can't empathize."

Yet Hongisto, among others, claims that she hasn't always been so sympathetic. "Her strengths are hard work and intelligence," he says. "One of her weaknesses is that she came from a background that made her unintentionally but profoundly insensitive to the problems of minorities and the poor." Adds another local political observer: "In San Francisco you have to be able to operate in ethnic neighborhoods, to understand people who may not wear deodorant, to go to a gay meeting on Castro Street. Dianne always seemed unwilling to get her hands dirty."

That may have changed in 1983, when Feinstein had to survive a humiliating recall election forced by the White Panthers, a ragtag group of radicals who were angered over a new ordinance banning handguns; the Panthers were supported by two homosexual clubs incensed because she had vetoed the domestic partnership bill. Devastated by the possibility of rejection, Feinstein threw herself into the alien world of street politics and won 82 percent of the vote. From that campaign emerged both a tougher politician and a more self-assured woman. "I used to think that a show of warmth was a show of weakness," she says. "The recall taught me to let people see me."

Though Feinstein is accustomed to material privilege, she has also known emotional hardship. The oldest of three daughters, she was reared in San Francisco by a father who treasured her and a mother she could never please. Her father, Leon Goldman, a surgeon and professor, was, she says, "a very gentle and learned man. He took a lot of abuse at home that he shouldn't have." Her mother, the pretty daughter of Russian immigrants, suffered from childhood encephalitis, which caused a brain disorder that wasn't diagnosed until she reached middle age. "The parts of her brain that control reason and judgment had deteriorated," Feinstein explains, "and she could be very violent. She would periodically attempt to take her own life." Much of Feinstein's childhood was shadowed by her mother's illness. "It left deep scars on the family," she says. "It's very hard when someone's behavior is totally unpredictable. You tend to retreat rather than go through bizarre episodes in front of other people. I brought friends home less and less, and I began to make a life outside the home earlier than I might have."

A tomboy, Dianne would leave her house at dawn to ride horses and would volunteer for after-school projects. When it became too difficult to study for an exam at home, she climbed into the family car with her books and a flashlight. At Stanford Feinstein was student-body vice-president, graduating in 1955 with a degree in history and political science. She took a job with the Coro Foundation in San Francisco as a public affairs intern specializing in criminal justice. In 1956 she married Assistant District Attorney Jack Berman, now a Superior Court judge, who became the father of her only child, Katherine. "I had a very bad marriage and a hard pregnancy in which I could barely walk," says Feinstein, "so I used to have little places along Mission Street where I would sit and rest on the way to my office." She and Berman separated when Katherine was an infant.

In 1962 Dianne married neurosurgeon Bertram Feinstein, 19 years her senior. "She was his jewel. I never heard them argue," says a friend. "If she wanted to take up brain surgery self-taught, he would have said, 'Go ahead.' " But Dianne preferred politics and was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1969. "When my mother went into politics it was viewed as a left-wing thing to do," says Katherine, now 26 and a law-school graduate. "My friends' mothers were all volunteers, but mine was not about to be part of a car pool every day at 3 p.m." Instead she launched her first futile mayoral campaign in 1971 on a platform that was pro-environment, pro-school integration (though her daughter attended private school) and sternly anti-smut. At a press conference to call attention to the city's fleshpots, Feinstein was interrupted by a line of strippers doing the cancan. "Instead of showing a sense of humor," says a witness, "her response was to go nutso. She was unnerved, and people sensed she was vulnerable."

In 1975 Feinstein tried again and lost again, this time to the more progressive Moscone. "Women didn't vote for me," she says. "Some were jealous. Some suspected that women in politics had something wrong with their marriages or with themselves. I've lived through the time when I could see rejection in women's faces, and it was like a knife twisting inside me. Now women view women in politics with a sense of pride, as if to say 'She speaks for me.' But only recently have I run better among women than among men."

Eight months before Feinstein's dream of being mayor was so shockingly realized, her husband, Bert, died of cancer. "After that I would just come home from work and shut the door," she says. "On a weekend I wouldn't leave the bedroom until Monday morning. In a sense I wanted to die too." It was her daughter who told her bluntly to stop feeling sorry for herself, and Richard Blum, a divorced investment banker, who made her part of a couple again. Blum met Feinstein when he co-chaired the advisory committee that helped reform the city's budget procedures. Later he introduced her to the outdoors on two continents. During their courtship, which culminated in a City Hall wedding four and a half years ago, Feinstein gamely accompanied him on a trek into the Himalayas, where she developed a 103-degree fever, prompting her premature descent on the back of a yak. Now Blum climbs alone.

The marriage is heartily approved of by Katherine. "My mother is very inside herself," she says, "and my stepfather relaxes her a bit. His reputation in business is a little different, but personally he's very gentle. That appeals to her." Says Feinstein, "I've been very fortunate to have had two husbands who enjoyed seeing me grow. Dick is willing to accompany me to events and secure enough not to have to be in the spotlight."

Away from the spotlight, the mayor retreats to their comfortable Pacific Heights "nest." Filled with Asian objets d'art, it has been protected by a slender wrought-iron fence ever since 1976, when leftist radicals tossed a bomb at her home. In her solitude Feinstein polishes and rearranges the furniture, nurtures her orchids and follows the dramaturgy on Falcon Crest and The People's Court. "Happiness for me is a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk," she says. "I prop myself up on pillows and open my briefcase." Twice a year she escapes to her oceanside hideaway on the Monterey peninsula. "I love the power of the sea," she says. "I play Rachmaninoff tapes, read [James Clavell, Robert Ludlum], watch the birds and think. I can be much more creative that way."

Five and a half years after taking office, Dianne Feinstein has become a mature politician with a future that may outshine her past. On her living-room piano she keeps a mother-of-pearl card box that once belonged to Benjamin Disraeli, Britain's only Jewish-born prime minister. When a colleague once asked if she wanted to be the first Jewish President, she gave her usual reply, "No, I just want to be a good mayor." By charter, however, Feinstein cannot succeed herself in 1987, and she may be stirred by higher ambitions. "If Dianne wants to be Vice-President, it's fine," says Blum. "If she wants to stay home and make peanut butter sandwiches, that's fine too."

Political soothsayers see Feinstein accepting a cabinet post if the Democrats should return to power in November. If not, she could run for governor or go for Alan Cranston's Senate seat in 1986—which could pave the way to a place on a presidential ticket in 1988. Still, life has taught her to avoid headstrong prophecy. "People have always said I've had my eye on a bigger pot of gold," she says. "It's never really been true. I've learned that so many events are out of our control." But if events should once again move the main chance her way, Dianne Feinstein will, as always, be ready. "Then," she says mildly, "I will consider it."