A bit belatedly, in the view of many other politicians, Vice President Gore has acknowledged that he faces what he calls "a hard, tough fight" for the Democratic presidential nomination and has taken the first steps toward winning the battle against former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley.

By announcing yesterday that he is moving his political headquarters out of Washington and back to his home state of Tennessee, Gore gives himself a chance -- albeit a small one -- of separating himself from the shadow of a president whose scandals have made the nation weary of his administration.

And by challenging Bradley to "a bunch of debates," Republican and Democratic operatives agreed, Gore plays to his strength and forces his challenger to meet him on the issues ground where Gore is most at home.

Robert Teeter, a top strategist when Vice President George Bush was competing for the Republican nomination in 1988, called the moves "a tacit admission that this is a serious race -- no more pretending -- and they better focus on how to beat Bradley." Teeter said that "to the extent Gore can become purely a candidate and not Bill Clinton's vice president, it's possible this will help him. But I don't know if it's doable."

Whatever benefits the vice president may derive from the dramatic moves he announced yesterday, his actions confirm the stark reality that despite all the points he gained as the designated heir to the first two-term Democratic president since FDR, Gore finds himself just four months from the first primary facing the real possibility of being repudiated by his party.

His plight is all the more vividly highlighted by the contrast with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has built steadily on his early lead in the Republican nomination race, to the point that many of his original challengers have dropped out and others are wondering how long they can stay afloat.

Democratic circles yesterday buzzed with the news that financial reports to be released today show that Gore spent virtually as much as he raised in the past three months. The move to Nashville is expected to provide the excuse for shrinking the campaign staff and payroll before Gore is left desperately short of funds for fighting off Bradley.

The situation is exactly the reverse of what most political observers expected at the start of 1999, when Gore was the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination and a wide-open, dozen-person battle loomed on the Republican side.

But Gore has squandered his advantages. He leads Bradley by 2-1 margins in national polls, but in New Hampshire, where the first primary will be held Feb. 1, he has seen Bradley draw even or pass him. Should Gore lose there, he could find himself fighting off a Bradley surge in the March 7 round of primaries. Bradley leads already in New York and several New England states, which vote that day, and has been closing the gap in California, the key March 7 contest. The challenger has been riding a wave of favorable publicity, whereas Gore's tactics and organization have dismayed even his own backers.

Those backers said they welcome the U-turn signaled by Gore's announcement. Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), a key Gore ally on Capitol Hill, said, "He has to do something bold to show he is a strong leader," because every poll demonstrates that it is the leadership dimension where he lags furthest behind Bush.

Steve Grossman, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a Gore supporter, said, "I applaud what he's doing. To the extent that he sheds the trappings of political power that accompany his office and lets the American people see him as he really is, it demonstrates his confidence."

While Tim Hibbits, an independent pollster in Oregon, dismissed the change of address as "pathetic window-dressing," adding that "not one voter cares where the headquarters are," Michael McCurry, the former Clinton White House press secretary, said the move to Nashville may bring some discipline and teamwork to a campaign where those attributes have been notably absent. Citing Clinton's success in 1992 when his "war room" was in Little Rock, McCurry said, "It helps to be in a place where your people have to rely on each other and there are fewer distractions. It's useful that he's put his entire campaign's back against the wall."

Teeter said the elder Bush never considered moving his 1988 campaign out of Washington, but he said he had strongly urged the current candidate Bush to keep his political headquarters near his office in Austin. "You avoid all the reporters and Washington hangers-on. You can focus on what you're doing in the country and not worry that two guys on Capitol Hill are mad at you."

But Teeter added that moving to Nashville "can't get [Gore] around the fact that he's essentially running for Clinton's third term."

"Clinton is a problem," a pro-Gore member of Congress agreed, insisting on anonymity. "Gore is a very loyal guy, so he can't just walk away. But he knows there is a yearning out there for something different. This is about the best he can do."

Former senator Paul Simon of Illinois, a onetime contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, called the move to Nashville "purely symbolic."

"But the debate challenge could be meaningful," Simon said. "Bradley is unlikely to score a knockout, but Gore is good enough that he might."

When they debate, Bradley can ill afford to attack Clinton's record or behavior; it would offend too many Democratic primary voters. And Gore is no slouch at debating issues. Dicks said Gore "destroyed" Ross Perot and Jack Kemp in earlier televised debates. "This may be his best opportunity."

As he implied, a campaign that started with every advantage is clearly in need of catching a break.