Vice President Gore and other senior Democrats, concerned about the party's fund-raising for next year's presidential campaign, have approached Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell about stepping into a top post at the Democratic National Committee, several sources said yesterday.

The effort to lure Rendell to the DNC began last week, the sources said, after Gore and his top advisers were rebuffed twice in recent weeks by two prominent Washington fund-raisers close to the White House: Terence R. McAuliffe, a friend of President Clinton who is guaranteeing the loan for the first family's $1.7 million New York house, and Peter Knight, a lobbyist who has been leading Gore's money drive.

Sources said McAuliffe and Knight rejected entreaties to take on official duties at the DNC, although they said that Knight will close down his lobbying practice by year's end to concentrate full time on raising funds for the vice president. Gore called Rendell on Sunday to discuss a DNC post, according to a source familiar with the conversation, and the mayor told him "he would love to do it."

It is not clear whether Rendell would replace former Colorado governor Roy Romer, current general chairman of the DNC, or take some other title, and the sources cautioned that a final agreement won't be reached until Clinton, who has been out of the country, signs off on it.

The overtures to Rendell come as the Gore campaign has grown increasingly concerned--"panicked is the word," according to one Democrat--about the $50 million-and-counting bank account being amassed by Republican front-runner George W. Bush.

Bush's decision to opt out of the presidential matching funds system means that he can raise and spend unlimited money for next year's primaries while Gore, in exchange for about $13 million in public funds, will be limited to less than $40 million. Democrats fear that Gore will have to spend much of that to defeat fellow Democrat Bill Bradley, leaving him out of money in the critical period between March, when the nomination is likely to be decided, and next summer's party conventions.

That makes the role of the DNC even more critical, because party "issue ads" funded by unlimited "soft money" contributions from corporations, unions and individuals may be the only avenue left to respond to an anticipated Bush media barrage attacking Gore. While DNC fund-raising is slightly ahead of the pace set in 1995, a variety of senior Democrats have expressed private concerns that the party has set an "unrealistic" goal of collecting as much as $200 million for the 2000 election.

Rendell, who will leave office at the end of this year, caught the attention of the Gore team with his fund-raising prowess in Philadelphia. The mayor, who ironically led the city's successful push to host next year's Republican National Convention, spearheaded a Gore fund-raiser in June that raised $450,000.

The first approach came to the mayor last week from Marcia Hale, a Washington lobbyist with close ties to Gore campaign chairman Tony Coelho, sources said. Last Thursday, Rendell convened a three-hour meeting with his advisers, deciding that while "there are pitfalls for him" in taking on a DNC assignment while planning a gubernatorial campaign in 2002, he would pursue the post. On Sunday, he told Gore, the sources said.

"There are two things that have impressed the Gore people," said a top Rendell adviser. "Number one: He's raised a lot of money for his campaigns. Number two: The mayor has taken the art of raising money for other nongovernmental things to a new level. He has raised literally a half-billion dollars for various projects--arts projects, new buildings."

Rendell spokesman David Yarkin confirmed the talks but said no final deal has been reached. "He hasn't been offered the job," Yarkin said. "Friends of his from the party have talked to him about it and asked him if he'd be interested in the DNC position if a vacancy existed. He said, 'I would consider it strongly.' "

Several top party officials said they weren't aware of the maneuverings with Rendell, while expressing disappointment that a battle-tested national fund-raiser such as McAuliffe, who led fund-raising for Clinton's 1996 reelection, couldn't be recruited for the post.

"Obviously, there was a big hope that Terry would do it," said one senior Democratic official. Rendell, the official said, "is very smart, charismatic. He's a funny guy and we could use some laughs around there."

Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell talked on Sunday with Vice President Gore.