WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Before considering the current Senate race in Pennsylvania, I should confess to two mistakes that are pertinent as background:
On July 8, 1988, in cheering the departure of Ed Meese as attorney general of the United States, I predicted that any successor was bound to be an improvement. In this, I was correct. But I added that it didn't matter much who was chosen by Ronald Reagan, because ''he or she will be gone in January.''
A week later, Mr. Reagan nominated Dick Thornburgh. I and many others were pleasantly surprised. Based on Mr. Thornburgh's record as governor of Pennsylvania and as an assistant attorney general who helped clean up the Watergate mess, I greeted him as a ''class act.'' ''He will be the man Mr. Bush can point to when he wants to show how things would change if he is elected . . . a symbol of what things could have been in this Republican administration,'' I believed then.
Well, Mr. Thornburgh stayed past January of 1989. And while he was bound to be different from Ed Meese, he was not the symbol of purity and corruption-fighting so many had expected. If any single characteristic predominated in his three-plus years as attorney general, it was ambition. Mr. Bush had decided that bowing to the hard right was the way to succeed politically; Mr. Thornburgh went along without a hint of insubordination.
When John Heinz was killed in a plane crash and his seemingly safe Senate seat came open, Democratic Gov. Bob Casey appointed Harris Wofford for the interim. Mr. Thornburgh, thinking the relatively unknown Mr. Wofford would be a pushover, turned his ambition to the Senate. He announced that he would run, but hung onto his Justice Department job, making theoretically non-political law-enforcement decisions, for weeks afterward.
Now the election is six days away, and it's Mr. Thornburgh who is proving wrong. Mr. Wofford is anything but a pushover. After starting 30-plus percentage points behind, then being outspent by a wide margin, he has campaigned hard and closed some opinion polls to dead even.
Ten days ago, statewide surveys showed Mr. Thornburgh still ahead by eight to 17 points. One taken this weekend had cut that to one point -- with Mr. Wofford leading by four among likely voters. In Philadelphia, Mr. Wofford's mid-October lead of nine points was up to 20 in one Democratic-sponsored poll.
All this could not have made happy reading in faraway Madrid for George Bush, who as a candidate always crows when he has the ''big mo'' of momentum running his way. Mr. Thornburgh went home to Pennsylvania assuming he could float to victory on his reputation as governor and his ties to a president enjoying stratospheric popularity ratings. Now the president's own ratings have plummeted, and the connection may have turned into a liability for Mr. Thornburgh.
Mr. Wofford began with virtually no statewide name recognition. Few remembered his link to the John Kennedy administration, his background as a civil-rights activist and then Peace Corps official. Fewer had heard of him as a college president. He is running this close because he has skillfully used the best campaign issues available to Democrats this and next year.
He has urged middle-class tax cuts, opposed the fast-track trade agreement that is likely to send still more U.S. jobs to Mexico, and accused Mr. Thornburgh of traveling so much on government aircraft that he makes John Sununu look like a homebody.
Seeing opportunity in the latest disclosures about the multinational BCCI banking scandal, he has joined those wanting to know why the Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and Bush -- and attorney general Thornburgh -- did not do more about it sooner.
Buoyed by the latest poll showings, he said, ''The mandate I will have in my victory November 5 will be, Number 1, to get action on national health insurance.''
Claiming victory this week is a little premature, but making health insurance a leading issue shows that he has a close fix on what is troubling voters. So does his focus on what is wrong with the Bush administration, and Mr. Thornburgh's involvement in it.
Whether Mr. Wofford wins or loses, he already has sent a message that should give the willies to our sojourning president. It might even tempt some reluctant Democratic heavyweights into a presidential campaign that gets more interesting every day.