IS THE TOM KNOX campaign the '69 Mets? Or the '85 Villanova Wildcats? Is it, in short, the Cinderella team of this mayoral season?

I'm starting to believe.

Not just because a new Daily News/Keystone Poll shows Knox, who was nowhere when the race began, now leading the field.

But also because almost everything that's happened so far - from the legal to the bizarre - happens to benefit Knox.

Start with the overall election-year atmosphere.

It's tainted with the residue of pay-to-play politics, fueled by frustration over violent crime and drugs, and charged with a general discontent about "the way things are."

Such an atmosphere welcomes a non-officeholder, new face selling change, and that benefits Knox.

Add the critical money factor.

For the first time, candidate campaign funds are limited. And these limits, upheld this week by state Commonwealth Court, impact all but multimillionaire Knox. It's an enormous edge, one he wouldn't have had in any prior race for mayor.

There's the size and makeup of the field.

The five major contenders can split the vote five ways, allowing someone to sneak to victory with maybe less than a third of the total. By doing TV early and often, Knox is closest to a number that can win.

And due to the size of the field (and financial limits), can other candidates really go after Knox in negative TV ads (to which, of course, he has the resources to respond)? Or are they reduced to self-promotion? And, if so, guess who gains from that?

Look at the top stories in the race to date:

* In December, Jonathan Saidel drops out. One less white-guy candidate benefits Knox.

* In January, the first Keystone Poll puts Knox second behind Chaka Fattah, moving Knox from a subject of insiders' snickers to a position of prominent player.

* In February, the feds indict state Sen. Vince Fumo, close friend and ally of Bob Brady, just after Brady announces his candidacy. Nothing like juicy corruption charges against a longtime power in city politics to underscore Knox's call for change.

Meanwhile, Knox works African-American churches and hosts neighborhood breakfasts and dinners, and runs TV ads on fighting crime, drugs and violence - voters' top concerns.

* In March, there's the Brady ballot challenge, a technicality related to a government form. But it's a story that (at best) is a distraction for Brady and (at worst) makes him and his campaign look inept. Knox leads the challenge and questions Brady's ability to lead the city.

Then a Philadelphia Tribune poll of African-American voters shows Knox going from 1 percent last October to 14 percent. Brady, the other white candidate, is at 8 percent.

Then long-regarded front-runner Fattah fumbles over release of his tax returns, filed jointly with his TV-news-anchor wife, Renee. It's another story about another candidate that's not exactly positive. And when a front-runner flails, guess who gains?

"I must admit, I didn't expect things to unfold the way they did," says Knox media guru Joe Trippi. "Call it luck or whatever you want to call it, things seem to break his way."

Doesn't mean he wins. A fifth of the vote is undecided. And an aide to a rival campaign says Knox right now is "defying gravity."

Is Knox as high as he gets? Does Fattah - the only candidate not yet on TV - sprint to the finish? Can Brady, who appears on the move, move up? Does Dwight Evans or Michael Nutter catch fire?

Or do events continue to break in favor of just one team? Like, you know, for Indiana's Milan High School back in '54. Wonder if Knox ever saw "Hoosiers"? *

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