-- In the homestretch of a campaign that heralds Hawaii's first female governor, Democrats are battling back against a well-financed challenger who was poised to snatch away their long-held claim to the governor's mansion.

Outspent more than 2 to 1 and trailing after the Sept. 21 primary, Democrat Mazie Hirono, the incumbent lieutenant governor, got some encouragement this past weekend from polls in the two Honolulu daily newspapers. Hirono has crept to a statistical tie against Republican Linda Lingle, who appears to have lost support to the undecided column.

Both sides have unleashed a late round of hard-hitting commercials and called in headliners to rouse supporters. Former president Bill Clinton is scheduled Wednesday to launch a series of Democratic rallies, and presidential confidante Karen Hughes arrived to stump for Lingle shortly after Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.

Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano (D), who has pushed Hirono's team to be tougher, said he is amazed she has closed the gap in the face of Hawaii's economic woes and criticism of the Democratic power dynasty.

"Mazie's campaign has been underfunded and they've made some mistakes. Organization has not been that good. But in spite of that, Democrats, as they usually do, have begun to pull together," the governor said.

Still, Democrats remain worried even as they ply their to-the-wire blitz. Within the party, Hirono has been criticized for her restrained style against the practiced, focused Lingle, a former Maui mayor and state GOP chairman who nearly unseated Cayetano in a 1998 matchup. Some Democrats expressed relief merely that Hirono survived Friday's televised debate with Lingle, which ended up an exercise in ultra-caution all around.

"It's ours to win," Lingle said. "People feel they were taken advantage of by the Democrats in '98. They've been let down terribly. The economy has not been diversified and you have more Democrats going to prison than at any time in our history."

In an election in which "change" is the universal mantra, Hirono is hamstrung by eight years of being tied to the Cayetano status quo, as well as to a string of corruption cases involving other Democrats.

She is appealing to voters to look at her as an experienced leader they can trust. Lingle, meanwhile, has gotten enough traction from her platform -- decentralizing the statewide school district, cutting red tape and bashing Democratic corruption -- to muster a stable of "Democrats for Lingle." State GOP Chairman Micah Kane promises a "rock-and-roll" voter turnout effort from the newly energized Republicans.

In the double-digit undecided category are many who share Hirono's Japanese ethnicity and should come home to her, Democrats believe. But the grass-roots campaigning that is the backbone of Democratic victories, including among rank-and-file unionists, has been slow to take off. Sierra Club members, while endorsing Hirono, have been less robust than usual in their activism for her, said local director Jeff Mikulina.

"There's been a lot of that negativity," said Russell Okata, executive director of the state's largest union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association. The energy in recent days has finally perked up for phone banks and neighborhood canvassing, he said. "We're growing more confident every day."

Hirono had a rocky start. She initially bypassed the race, then jumped in late when the presumed front-runner shocked supporters by dropping out. Hirono then endured the public angst of prominent Democrats casting about for a stronger candidate.

"It's closer than any of us had ever thought," said Democratic communications consultant Phil Wood. "The Democrats aren't as energized as they have been in the past, and that reflects on their opinion of Mazie's ability to get elected."

In the end, the party hopes that a 40-year tradition will hold and Democrats simply will be unable to vote Republican.