Vice President Gore took a detour from the campaign trail today to "the cradle of America's civil rights movement," as he put it, to stand side by side with the family of Martin Luther King Jr. and mark the slain civil rights leader's birth 71 years ago.

Although Gore's trip here was deemed official business, his advisers viewed it as the unofficial launch of his push to secure the Democratic presidential nomination during a blitz of March primaries--including one here in Georgia.

Coming just one week before the Iowa caucuses, today's dip south illustrates the unique challenge of the 2000 political calendar. In a near-comical battle for clout, dozens of states pushed their nominating contests up. Eight days after next Monday's Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire holds the first primary. While the Republican candidates then sprint from South Carolina to Arizona to Michigan to Virginia--where the GOP contests take place before the Democratic primaries--Bradley and Gore face a five-week pause that presents a host of costly and complex tactical decisions for when the Democratic voting resumes March 7.

On that Tuesday, 15 states and American Samoa hold Democratic primaries or caucuses, electing more than 1,300 of the nearly 2,200 delegates needed for nomination. California and New York, the equivalent of a delegate gold rush, vote March 7, as does Bradley's native Missouri. By March 14, voters in 13 more states will decide, including Gore's home state of Tennessee and delegate-rich Michigan, Florida and Texas, virtually ensuring the selection of a nominee by the ides of March.

"Twenty-eight states in eight days," says Bradley strategist Ed Turlington, summarizing the rush of contests. Or as one key Gore adviser put it: "One of us will succeed in March."

Iowa and New Hampshire still exert great influence, sketching the outlines of the political landscape for the coming weeks. "If Bradley does well in New Hampshire, he has the potential to do very well" on the West Coast, said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant. But if Bradley is soundly defeated Feb. 1, "it is hard to see how he turns it around fast enough."

One thing is certain about the five-week stretch: With so much ground to cover in so little time, the campaign shifts overnight from Iowa barns and quaint New England coffee shops to the tarmacs and TV sets of the rest of America.

Gore Strategy

Gore will have to capitalize on institutional assets such as Cabinet secretaries, Air Force Two and distributing federal money, but at the heart of his strategy are 800 "superdelegates"--lawmakers, Democratic National Committee members and other party leaders who automatically get convention votes. Tad Devine, Gore's delegate strategist, estimates the vice president has 500 superdelegates to Bradley's 25. "That for us represents an enormous advantage," he says.

But Gore knows Bradley is likely to have the cash advantage in the run-up to March 7, so the vice president has turned to organized labor to fill the gap with advertising and ground troops. While Gore was meeting with 17 union leaders in Iowa last week, his pollster and campaign chairman were brainstorming with labor chiefs such as Teamster President James Hoffa Jr., AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to chart a post-New Hampshire course.

As they have for much of the past year, Gore's strategists are divided over President Clinton's role in Campaign 2000. Some, including campaign manager Donna Brazile and former White House political director Karen Skelton, argue Clinton would be an asset in states such as California and Florida and can rally minority voters as he did in the recent Philadelphia mayoral race. But others, most notably lead message strategist Carter Eskew, fear Clinton will reinforce impressions that Gore could not escape administration scandals or emerge from the president's shadow.

Two strategists close to Clinton said the president is likely to continue raising money and otherwise operate "under the radar," cajoling influential supporters and steering federal money to key states.

Geographically, Gore believes the South, particularly Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee, is fertile territory. And after trekking across country for seven years delivering federal largess and courting Latinos, high-tech entrepreneurs, environmentalists and gay leaders, Gore is counting on California.

"This administration has done a lot for California, from the Northridge earthquake to helping save the Los Angeles health care system to the offshore oil drilling ban to cops on the street to billions of federal dollars for transportation projects," said Skelton, who is overseeing Gore's California operation. "The vice president will be able to look people in the eye and say, 'I helped you do those things in the past and here's what I want to do for you in the future.' "

Bradley Strategy When Bradley began mapping his campaign more than a year ago, he studied the misfortunes of Democratic insurgents Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas. What he learned foremost, was the value of money.

"Money by itself won't buy him the nomination, but at least it gives him the capacity to soldier on beyond New Hampshire," said Bill Mayer, a professor at Northeastern University and author of "In Pursuit of the White House 2000." After outraising Gore for the second half of 1999, and limiting his spending, Bradley may have as much as $14 million for February and March.

Second, and equally important, he studied the party rule book.

"What insurgent candidacies discovered in the past coming out of New Hampshire and Iowa was that they did not have the infrastructure for success in place," said Jacques DeGraff, the senior Bradley adviser who began plotting delegate recruitment last spring. "We realized early on this would be a multi-state, national competition and we structured accordingly."

Today, Bradley has full delegate slates in virtually every state and has veteran operatives stationed in key places, including New York, California and Texas, said spokesman Tony Wyche, who like Turlington and DeGraff is focused solely on the March races.

Bradley's advisers concede Gore has an enormous advantage among the superdelegates, but they argue that if Bradley captures popular support, these party leaders will switch their allegiance. "We've made a constant effort to keep in touch with the superdelegates," said Turlington, adding the campaign mailed a letter to all 800 in early January. "Everybody is a potential Bradley supporter and we want to keep those lines of communication open."

Given the fact Gore is much better known nationally, the Bradley team is likely to target states of opportunity-such as New York, Massachusetts, Washington, Illinois and Florida--rather than mount full campaigns in all 31 states voting in March. Using the Internet and big names such as former basketball star Nate "Tiny" Archibald and African American scholar Cornel West, Bradley hopes to broaden his support beyond the traditional Democratic Party loyalists who turn out for caucuses.

And although Gore holds substantial leads in polls in most states, the Bradley camp argues that just like in New Hampshire, once he becomes better known, Bradley's support will jump. And if Bradley wins New Hampshire, said Turlington, "the perception of Bill as a potential president will go up."

After the Lull

The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries will precede a five-week dead spot in Democratic nominating events. Then two biggies hit in consecutive weeks.

Democratic nominating events

March 7

California

Hawaii

Idaho

North Dakota

Minnesota

Montana

Ohio

Georgia

New York

Vermont

Maine

Massachusetts

Connecticut

Maryland

Rhode Island

March 9-14

Nevada

Arizona

Utah

Colorado

Wyoming

Texas

Oklahoma

Louisiana

Florida

Mississippi

Tennessee

South Carolina

Michigan

CAPTION: Vice President Gore joins hands with, from left, Dexter Scott King, Rabbi Isaac Goodfriend and Coretta Scott King at a memorial at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father preached.