A LOT OF FOLKS are calling tomorrow's preliminary hearing for Penn State's accused child-sex creep Jerry Sandusky "the circus" - with predictions there may be more journalists in rural county seat Bellafonte, Pa., than its 5,000 residents - and a lot of folks may be right.

In a real circus, excitement builds even though everyone knows that at the end of the show the lion tamer's head doesn't get bitten off and the high-wire walker makes it to the other side. In the Sandusky hearing, there is virtually no doubt that the former top aide to football legend Joe Paterno will be held for trial.

So why the three-ring hoopla?

For prosecutors, the hearing before District Judge Robert E. Scott - imported from Westmoreland County because every jurist in Centre County had a conflict with Sandusky or Penn State - is a chance to show the world what it hopes is an airtight case that Sandusky is a serial child molester.

The state Attorney General's Office plans to offer testimony from at least eight of Sandusky's accusers - and perhaps all 10 who are part of its expanding case - which would give the public its first glimpse of the men who claim that Sandusky abused them when they were young boys, from the mid-1990s through the 2000s. Strong testimony could even force Penn State's former defense coordinator to beg for a deal.

Experts say that the preliminary hearing presents enormous challenges for Sandusky's unpredictable and freewheeling defense lawyer, Joseph Amendola, but will also provide Amendola his best chance to save his 67-year-old client from spending the rest of his life in prison. Here's how:

* Get it on the record. It's never easy for the defense to cross-examine alleged victims of sexual abuse, but Amendola may have no choice but to press the prosecution's witnesses for intimate details of their encounters with Sandusky - to set up the possibility of inconsistencies at trial.

"He may have to ask, 'Were you raped? Did it hurt? Did you tell Mom or Dad?' " said Richard DeSipio, a former sex-crimes prosecutor who's now a Philadelphia defense attorney, "because those stories may change down the road - and all the defense needs is reasonable doubt."

* Probe how many of the defendants are filing civil lawsuits against Sandusky and deep-pocketed Penn State, in an effort to cast doubt against the ex-coach's accusers.

"Maybe one incident was inappropriate and it snowballed and everybody looked at the money and the lawyers were starstruck," said DeSipio, floating a possible defense theory. "They didn't speak to the police but they spoke to their lawyer about money - that will be the thing."

* Try to show that the circumstances of the accusers differ in significant ways from one another - with the goal of convincing the judge to break the cases into separate trials instead of going before one jury with all 10 alleged victims.

But one top defense lawyer in central Pennsylvania - William Costopoulos, who won acquittal after a media frenzy in the 2002 race-riot murder case against former York Mayor Charlie Robertson - thinks that winning that argument would be nearly impossible.

Costopoulos agreed that Amendola should probe the witnesses for inconsistencies - although, perhaps, with the goal of a plea bargain, bringing less than a maximum sentence. He said he believes that Sandusky - who in two lengthy media interviews admitted to showering with boys but claimed it was not sexual - has already been convicted "in the court of public opinion," regardless of the legal outcome.

One major wild card tomorrow is whether Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary - who allegedly saw Sandusky rape a young boy in the school's showers in 2002 - will testify, and what he'll say if he does take the stand.

The Harrisburg Patriot-News reported yesterday that in the version of the incident that he told his dad hours after it happened, McQueary didn't say that he saw sexual activity. That is different, the newspaper said, from what McQueary told investigators and a grand jury this year.

There is considerable interest in McQueary's story because he also spoke with Paterno about Sandusky the day after he talked with his dad, and the episode was central in the university's decision last month to abruptly fire the winningest coach in major college football.