AUGUSTA, MAINE -- Less than three weeks ago, Peter A. McKernan stood strong and tall at his father's side, beaming with pride as John R. McKernan was sworn in for his second term as Maine's governor.

That moment of triumph has given way to tragedy. Now the governor maintains a vigil at the bedside of his only child, who is clinging to life after suffering heart failure.

A bright, athletic, easygoing reflection of his father, Peter, 20, had just finished a two-mile jog with other students hoping to make the baseball team at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., when he collapsed Jan. 14.

Since then, the sophomore has been hospitalized in Hanover in a coma, breathing with help from a ventilator. Doctors say his chances of recovery are remote.

The governor, spending virtually every waking moment by his son's side, "is in a lot of pain," said Sharon Miller, McKernan's chief of staff and friend. "Peter's the most important thing in his life."

Miller said the elder McKernan, 42, has remained strong throughout the ordeal, though "this is truly the most devastating thing that can happen to a human being."

"He's just remarkable, comforting others while grieving himself," Miller said. She described Peter as "a phenomenal kid."

McKernan's wife, Rep. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and Peter's mother, Judith Vigue, have remained at the hospital.

"He really cared about his parents and baseball more than anything," said Tim Carey, a teammate who administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation after Peter collapsed. "He always had a smile on his face."

In an interview last July, Peter raised the prospect of a career in public service. Talking about his prep school days, Peter said he was glad to have transferred from a Massachusetts school to one near Augusta.

"I got a chance to live in the governor's mansion, which is something only 50 families get to do in this country," the younger McKernan said. "It was a good opportunity, and I got to spend some time with my father."

The tragedy has been felt from the Dartmouth campus to the State House in Augusta, casting a pall over negotiations to head off the state's $160 million budget deficit.

Since the governor's son was stricken, harsh attacks on McKernan for his handling of the budget crisis have been muted.

Scores of people have written and called the hospital and state executive offices to offer support and prayers.

At Dartmouth, Gov. McKernan's alma mater, students have set up a 24-hour hot line to give the latest reports on Peter's condition and on where prayer vigils for him are being held.

Cards and notes have been pouring into Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. So many students were stopping by to see Peter that they are now being asked to gather in a lounge off his floor.

Peter's attending neurologist, Richard Nordgren, said brain swelling made the likelihood of recovery remote. The cardiac arrest probably was caused by an electrical disturbance that would not necessarily be detected in routine medical screening and could be hereditary or caused by a viral infection, cardiologist Bruce Friedman said.

Tests indicated that drugs were not involved.

In Augusta, it was the second tragedy within weeks involving someone close to state government. On Dec. 29, Rep. Donald V. Carter, House chairman of the state Joint Appropriations Committee, was killed when his car crashed on a slick highway as he was returning home from budget negotiations.

"It kind of has members put things in perspective," said Senate President Charles P. Pray, a Democrat, who like the Republican chief executive has a 20-year-old son.