The holdout problem is a staple of the sports world, where spoiled athletes often sulk before agreeing to their contracts. As Vice President Gore made his latest recruiting trip to Capitol Hill yesterday, some of his critics were suggesting he has run into a similar problem in getting Democrats to sign up as supporters of his White House bid.

The numbers appear to support that supposition. According to the Gore campaign's own score card, only 11 of the 45 Democratic senators and 68 of the 211 Democrats in the House have pledged to back the man the polls say is likely to be the party standard-bearer in 2000.

The contrast with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the early leader in the crowded Republican field, is striking. Bush has 20 of the 55 GOP senators and 148 of the 222 House members in his corner--even though he is pretty much a stranger to Capitol Hill. Bush's double-digit lead over Gore in general election trial heats bolsters his appeal to the GOP and makes Gore a harder sell on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Rep. Norman D. Dicks of Washington, one of two Democrats leading Gore's campaign in the House, acknowledged that some liberal lawmakers or vulnerable freshmen were hanging back.

"The caution you're seeing is people wanting to see how this all sorts out. That's the way politicians do things," Dicks said. "Obviously everybody wishes the vice president was doing a little better with these [poll] numbers."

But just as most first-round draftees eventually come to terms with the football or basketball teams that have selected them, there's reason to think Gore will garner most of the holdout Democrats--unless, of course, he is ambushed in the early contests by his lone rival, former senator Bill Bradley.

"The vice president will get the overwhelming support of the caucus," predicted Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Robert Menendez, who intends to endorse Gore in the next few weeks, despite the fact that he hails from New Jersey, the state Bradley represented in the Senate for 18 years. "People hold back for a number of reasons. They want to talk to him personally, or they want to consult with people back home."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, for example, said he told Gore over lunch 18 months ago that he backs his candidacy. But Lieberman is not listed by the Gore campaign as an endorser. Nor is Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who said in an interview, "I'm going to be for Gore. We go back to the [House Commerce] committee together. I've told them I'm available whenever it's useful."

Gore backers claim that more than 170 House and Senate Democrats have promised their support privately. Without confirming that number, spokeswoman Kiki Moore said, "We have a lot more people who are with us, but we have a schedule for rolling out the announcements."

In a system dominated by primaries, many question the importance of endorsements. But because Democrats have made their members of Congress automatic "superdelegates" to the national convention, they represent a bloc of more than 250 votes in Los Angeles next August. So far, Bradley has only two senators and one House member publicly committed.

By all accounts, Gore has been more aggressive than Bradley in seeking endorsements--a policy Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware said he thinks is a mistake. "Endorsements aren't worth a nickel," he said. "Even if he gets them to commit, these guys will stampede in a second if Bradley wins New Hampshire."

Disregarding such advice, Gore was back on Capitol Hill yesterday for a meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, where he pledged to support funds for school construction and capital investments in disadvantaged areas and attacked Bush on the school voucher issue.

"He's laid a solid foundation to get our support," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Maryland, already on Gore's endorsement list.

Bradley is also making an effort to woo members of Congress, suggesting that if they can't back him publicly, he'd appreciate their remaining neutral.

The top Capitol Hill Democrats--Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri--signed up with Gore months ago. But the Bradley argument holds some appeal for Democratic freshmen, many of whom expect to face tough challenges next year.

"We don't have the luxury of thinking about other people's campaigns," said freshman Rep. Michael E. Capuano (Mass.). "For me, I'm much more interested in what my constituents are interested in, and right now they're not talking about it."

Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, regarded by many in his home state as a likely Gore ally, said he is busy organizing young professional couples into a new support group for the party and "some of them are strong for Bradley."

Meanwhile, some conservative freshman Democrats are concerned that Gore's pro-environmental stand could damage their own electoral prospects. Rep. Ronnie Shows (D-Miss.) said the vice president is seen as caring "more about turtles and owls than people."