LOUISVILLE, OCT. 30 -- Democratic senatorial candidate Harvey Sloane sees a pot of gold at the end of the campaign rainbow and it all belongs to his opponent, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): a $1.5 million war chest for the final days of the race that Sloane cannot even begin to match.

Across the country, House and Senate challengers are finding the same empty treasuries, and dashed dreams, as the Tuesday elections approach with incumbents leading almost everywhere in both polls and financial balance sheets.

Never has the fund-raising gap between incumbents and challengers been so great, according to Common Cause, the lobbying group that has championed legislation to overhaul campaign financing laws. The legislation died in deadlock shortly before Congress adjourned last weekend.

Among the 32 senators who are seeking reelection this year, only Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), appointed six months ago, has been outspent by a challenger. Incumbents have raised $4 for every $1 raised by challengers; for House members, the ratio is $12 to $1.

Moreover, Senate races are starting to resemble House contests in their lack of financial competitiveness. A recent Common Cause study showed that Senate incumbents spent 27 percent more than incumbents in 1988, while their opponents spent 6 percent less than the 1988 challengers. It also showed that half the incumbents seeking reelection have outraised their opposition, if they have opposition, by at least 9 to 1. Four incumbents who have no major party opposition scared off foes in part because each had raised at least $850,000 before the campaign even started.

Do people care? In some states such as Oregon, where veteran Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) is in an unexpectedly close race this fall, they appear to have responded to challengers' charges of special-interest influence on incumbents. But there is no evidence that the issue of campaign finance reform can ignite a lagging campaign and few challengers have bothered to raise it.

Even in this climate the McConnell-Sloane race stands out.

McConnell, who led the fight against a campaign spending limits bill proposed by the Democrats on grounds it would favor incumbents, is a master at exploiting the advantages of incumbency.

The first-term lawmaker ranks among the heaviest users of franked (government-financed) mail in the Senate: $2 million over six years, including $566,000 between last July and September. In contrast, Kentucky's other senator, Wendell H. Ford (D), spent $650,000 over six years.

Even though an alternative campaign finance overhaul bill he proposed would have outlawed contributions from political action committees (PACs) in federal elections, McConnell has raked in more than $1 million in PAC money, much of it from groups with legislative interests that go before committees on which he serves.

McConnell, like many Democrats, defends his acceptance of PAC money by saying he is operating under the rules as they are now written.

Jim Cunningham, Sloane's campaign manager, complained that would-be Kentucky contributors have said they cannot give to Sloane so long as they have legislation pending before the Senate, especially when it falls under the jurisdiction of committees, such as Energy and Agriculture, on which McConnell serves. Critics say McConnell has even used his service on the Foreign Relations Committee to political advantage with a record of support for Israel that has all but shut off Sloane from Jewish fund-raising groups, usually a good source of money for Democrats.

For the critical final six weeks of the campaign, McConnell had nearly $2 million cash on hand, with $1.5 million of it still in reserve as of Oct. 17, when the final preelection accounting was made. By contrast, Sloane had about $500,000 available, half in a personal loan that he has paid back at least once.

McConnell argues that this just proves his point that candidates from states where the opposition party is entrenched (Democrats lead in registration in Kentucky by better than 2 to 1) need to be able to even the odds by raising more money than spending limits would allow.

Sloane says it just proves how "ridiculously incumbent-geared" the current system is.

But Kentuckians, like others, seem to care about such issues only when it can be demonstrated that special-interest influence on politics and government policy hits them in the pocketbook.

"People drop dead from boredom" unless you can show how it affects them, Sloane said in an interview.

McConnell contends that his high-visibility role in opposing the campaign finance legislation helped him by showing he is a major player in Congress. "It's a big plus in my resume," he said recently.

In an attempt to make the connection between special interests and ordinary voters, Sloane is running a television ad showing a McConnell-like marionette being showered by money from two cigar-chomping lobbyists labeled "Big Oil" and "Insurance." A voice says, "They pull his strings and Mitch McConnell dances to their tune" in voting against such things as child care and a minimum wage increase.

Sloane came to Kentucky as a volunteer Health Corps physician in the early 1960s, served as mayor of Louisville in the '70s and was the elected executive of surrounding Jefferson County from 1985 to 1989. He has run a populist-tinged campaign stressing restoration of health, education and other public services after what he has called "the greed and neglect of the '80s."

A recent Louisville Courier-Journal poll showed Sloane cutting McConnell's 20-percentage-point lead in half, but he still trails the incumbent by 17 points among the state's most likely voters.

Sloane hopes to capitalize on the anti-Washington, anti-politician mood with what money he has for the final stretch.

But he runs into McConnell even on that track. Just as Democrats were scoring points by portraying President Bush as protecting the rich from higher taxes, McConnell went on the air to say he had not "voted for one of those lousy budget packages for years" but thought "everyone should pay their fair share, including the rich."

With $1.5 million in the bank, he can run that ad -- and more -- for as long as it takes.