TO HEAR his ads, you would think that mayoral candidate

Tom Knox

is Mr. Outsider.

One of his TV ads attacks "politicians beholden to the machine or special interests."

In an interview last month, describing his Mr. Outsider role, Knox said, "If you're part of the system, it's hard to tear it down."

In an electorate sick of corruption, the sleaze-busting outsider image has helped propel Knox into the lead in the polls.

This has Clout scratching its pointy little head because in 1998 Knox was a serious choice for mayor of - state Sen. Vince Fumo.

Now, Vince Fumo is many things (including indicted at the moment), but system-wrecking outsider is not one of them.

The Fumo flirtation with Knox didn't last because it was quickly determined that Knox hadn't moved into the city soon enough to meet the three-year residency requirement for the 1999 election. But Knox and Fumo were on the same team.

The Vince settled on rainmaker Tommy Leonard next, and Knox pledged $1 million toward that effort.

When Leonard declined for family reasons, Marty Weinberg, an ally who'd been helping Fumo pick a candidate, wound up being the candidate himself. Knox held a $10,000-a-couple fundraiser for Weinberg and donated 4,000 square feet of office space for his campaign headquarters. When we asked the Knox campaign how they squared his Mr. Outsider image with this 1999 alliance with Mr. Insider, a Knox spokesman said, "Fumo opposed Tom's candidacy in 1999. They were enemies."

After ticking off some of the facts mentioned above, we offered the spokesman a chance to refine his response.

The refined response was, "Tom did know Vince when he was exploring his run for mayor in 1999, but that became a non-

issue because of the residency requirement. Vince is the epitome of what Tom is running against this time around."

Fumo declined to discuss Knox. But that is OK because we know People Who Talk to Vince and are familiar with his insights.

Here's what PWTV say: Fumo considers Knox very much an insider who plays an insider's game. Furthermore, Knox came to Fumo last year and asked for his support. Fumo declined.

None of this makes Knox a bad person. But it doesn't make him Mr. Outsider either.

Oh, the shark, babe!

When a guy in a shark costume appeared outside Knox's campaign office Wednesday, attacking him as a payday-loan shark (for his old bank's predatory loans), it figured one of his rivals might be behind the stunt.

But attorney Alex Talmadge insisted that the group protesting Knox was not "connected to, supported in any way or sponsored by any candidate, campaign or committee."

That apparently doesn't apply to some of the individuals involved - like him.

According to two witnesses, Talmadge was a stand-in for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady at a North Philadelphia candidates' forum March 14. Talmadge last night acknowledged standing in for Brady, but said that doesn't make him a part of the Brady campaign. He said he hasn't endorsed anyone and noted he's only the attorney for the anti-Knox group.

Timely metaphor

Mayoral candidate Chaka Fattah hasn't lost his cool despite a 9-point drop in the latest Daily News/Keystone Poll.

The one-time front-runner described the poll as a "fairly good snapshot of where things stand at this moment."

He said yesterday that he's not worried and has no plans to accelerate a TV-ad campaign. Fattah is the only one of the five major candidates not yet on TV.

Then he offered a perfect metaphor for today, Good Friday.

"It's like if you stopped the Easter story on Friday, you would miss the whole point of it," Fattah said. He also recalled Muhammad Ali's famous "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight-title fight against George Foreman in 1974.

Ali spent much of the early rounds leaning on the ropes, absorbing Foreman's punches, and looking as though he'd lose.

"You just didn't understand the strategy," Fattah said.

"It was a rope-a-dope strategy. So, if anyone suggests the race for mayor is over, I think it's a little premature."

Butkovitz-Jones connection

There has been some grumbling that Harvey Rice, top aide to City Controller Alan Butkovitz, has been doing volunteer work for the campaign of Common Pleas Judge C. Darnell Jones for state Supreme Court.

Aren't city workers forbidden to engage in political activity?

Yes, indeed. But Rice is not a city employee. He's one of the controller aides who works for the school district, which doesn't prohibit political activity.

There's another Jones-Butkovitz connection: Butkovitz's son, Eddie, is director of political outreach and advance for Jones' campaign.

Eddie, 21, graduates magna cum laude next month from Ursinus and hopes to attend law school in the fall.

He's a former three-time All-Public wrestler at Central, where he won the city title in the 140-lb. class his senior year.

Excellent training for smashmouth Philly politics.

Rendell endorsements

Speaking of C. Darnell Jones, he is one of only two candidates Gov. Rendell is endorsing in the May primary.

The other is Bill Green, a lawyer and son of former Mayor William J. Green III.

Green yesterday e-mailed supporters an invitation to public events he has planned, which included Rendell's endorsement (sample: "Bill will be a breath of fresh air on City Council."

Chuck Ardo, a Rendell spokesman, confirmed the endorsement and said Green and Jones would be the only two.

Staff writers Gar Joseph, Mark McDonald and Dave Davies contributed to this report.