WASHINGTON -- There is a point in every presidential campaign when it becomes clear that one candidate or the other has little margin for error. Vice President Al Gore seems to have reached that point.
The Democratic nominee is by no means doomed. He still has the potential to win the Nov. 7 election. But Mr. Gore is also in a position in which he needs to reverse the apparent trend of sentiment in several key states or face defeat at the hands of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.
The most obvious indicator of Mr. Gore's peril is the finding of five national opinion polls that Mr. Bush is ahead, by enough percentage points in three of them so they cannot be dismissed as statistical anomalies. What is more revealing, however, is the number of electoral votes hanging in the balance in states a Democratic candidate ordinarily might be expected to win -- and Mr. Gore specifically needs to win.
The Democratic candidate is either behind or even in the competition for just under 100 electoral votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, Maine and West Virginia. By contrast, the only states in which Mr. Gore seems to be doing better than expected are Florida, with 25 votes, and possibly North Carolina, although he is hardly the favorite in either.
In situations like this, the candidate in trouble can be identified by his campaign schedule. If he is spending a lot of time defending his own turf rather than on the offensive, he is not a good bet. So it may be significant that the vice president will be campaigning this week not only in Pennsylvania, the largest of the swing states, but also will be making stops in heavily Democratic West Virginia and in his home state of Tennessee.
At the same time, except for a day in Florida, Mr. Bush will be spending the week in territory Mr. Gore should control, making stops in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee and Michigan as well as hotly contested Pennsylvania.
The operative question here is, of course, what the candidate facing such an uphill struggle can do to change the dynamics. In post-World War II politics, there are few, if any, candidates who won on the strength of an eleventh-hour surge. Harry Truman may have done so against Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, but the polling data at the time was not adequate to make a case either way.
The most impressive late rush that could be documented was made by a Democratic vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey, against Richard M. Nixon in the 1968 election. Although burdened by his identification with the Vietnam War policies of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the divisions within the party, Humphrey made a strong case to the party regulars late in the campaign and gained ground steadily to end up only a whisker from success.
Mr. Gore seems to have less promising options, although he has some weapons in his arsenal that have been effective in the past such as the Social Security issue, a crowd-pleaser for Democrats for the past 20 years. Although Mr. Bush has promised to protect the benefits of all the current recipients, any proposals for changes in the system always cause panic among seniors.
It may be a scare tactic, as the Republicans contend, but it is one that can have some political reach not only in Florida but in northern states with large populations of low-income retirees, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Issues aside, Mr. Gore is obliged to do whatever it takes to maximize the turnout of voters who may be sympathetic to his politics but casual about taking part themselves. The Republicans usually are much better at persuading their adherents to cast their votes, which is why they enjoy some advantage in midterm elections.
So the vice president's campaign is mobilizing every friendly constituency with an organizational base in Washington and the potential to get more voters to the polling places. The key players are, of course, the labor unions who have the money and manpower as well as the motivation to support the Democratic nominee.
The Gore campaign also will be pulling out the stops to forestall defections to Ralph Nader that appear to be a threat in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont and Maine. National polls show Mr. Nader with only 3 to 4 percent, but his share rises to 6 or even 8 percent in some states.
Given the shape of the electoral map with only two weeks remaining, Mr. Gore cannot take any chances.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.