Every Monday afternoon at 4:30 in Paul Wolfowitz's large office at the western end of Foggy Bottom's color-coded corridors, the Reagan administration's senior Asia hands gather to devise, refine and implement American foreign policy in the Pacific -- which means, these days, that they talk a lot about the Philippines.

The trio of men who have attended this weekly meeting for the past several years are referred to inside the State Department as "the triumvirate," or sometimes, "The Gang of Three." When they are together, an unusual spirit of comity prevails -- unusual because the three are lords of competing bureaucratic kingdoms. There is Richard Armitage, assistant secretary of defense; Gaston Sigur, chief Asian expert at the White House's National Security Council; and Wolfowitz, 42, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, the leading architect of American policy toward the Philippines.

Yesterday, that policy underwent one of its most important tests in years when millions of Filipinos went to the polls to choose between incumbent President Ferdinand E. Marcos and opposition challenger Corazon C. Aquino (final results are not expected before early next week). The election, as Wolfowitz put it last fall, could produce "a disaster of large and indefinable proportions" if widespread fears about ballot box fraud are realized.

The Gang of Three is hoping for the best.

Unlike their administration counterparts in Middle East and Africa policy -- who, according to State Department officials, are inclined to sharp disagreements and bureaucratic in-fighting -- the three Asia hands are a "brotherhood," as one of their colleagues puts it.

"We'd have a hell of a mess if they didn't get along," says Robert L. Downen, one of Wolfowitz's top advisers. "What we have achieved here in the last three years is a camaraderie and sense of mutual trust and community that has overridden all the institutional rivalries."

Their personal and intellectual affinity is "very real and it's very important," Wolfowitz says. "In the Philippines, it is especially important that the U.S. is seen to be speaking with one voice. If we seem to be divided among ourselves, people will choose to listen to that which is most pleasing to them . . . You get no policy if you have division in policy."

For three years now, the country's "one voice" speaking to the Philippines has mainly belonged to Wolfowitz. If he sounded a little hoarse this week, it was not only that he had the flu, but also that all the months of testifying and negotiating and transoceanic telephoning had reached an intense climax. The Marcos-Aquino contest may some day be regarded as a watershed in Philippines history; for Wolfowitz, it marked the end of an exhilarating era in his own foreign policy career.

On his desk late each afternoon there accumulates a towering pile of red-tagged memos and cables that Paul Wolfowitz must read before he goes home to his wife and young children in Northwest Washington. It is an intimidating mound of documents -- marked red for urgency, as if any reminder was needed of the insistent demands of his work. He must get through all of it; because of time differences, one night's delay in Washington can mean two days lost in the Pacific.

The pace of his life is unrelenting, no less so for being unexceptional among his colleagues in the upper reaches of the State Department. To describe the hours that he puts in, the foreign service officers who work with Wolfowitz use words like "unbelievable" and "crushing" and "workaholic." Wolfowitz himself will concede that he "packs about as much into a day as is humanly possible. There is so much, and the traveling on top of it, which in East Asia is particularly difficult because there's no such thing as a short trip."

Wolfowitz would bankrupt any frequent flier plan. In the past few months alone, he has logged more than 50,000 air miles, jetting back and forth between Washington and Hanoi, Manila and Jakarta, Geneva and Hong Kong. "Once you're out there, they say you've got to drop in here and drop in there, and make two or three whirlwind visits. It's two weeks before you're home," he says.

This grueling itinerary has not yet eroded his appearance, however. His hair is thick and bone black, his face unlined. And though his colleagues often remark upon his calm and resolute demeanor, Wolfowitz's youthful complexion and slightly oversized ears produce an impression of precocity -- he looks at times like a child prodigy dressed up in pin stripes by his parents.

He was in fact something of a prodigy growing up in Ithaca, N.Y., the son of a Cornell University mathematics professor. His father, he says, was a man who thought "the only people who don't do science are the ones who can't." Wolfowitz could. He studied chemistry and math at Cornell and planned -- he says only half facetiously -- to some day win a Nobel Prize.

In the middle of his senior year, however, he abruptly concluded that mathematics was too abstract, and so he went off to earn his PhD in political science. His father's reaction was predictable, Wolfowitz says: "Hard scientists don't think too much of political science. Any discipline that has to put the word 'science' in its name is giving away its inferiority complex."

But Wolfowitz was not about to concede inferiority. Under the tutelage of his mentor at the University of Chicago, hard-line conservative Albert Wohlstetter, he immersed himself in economics and international relations -- concentrating especially on the Right's critique of detente. By the time he was finished, he had landed a prestigious teaching post at Yale. And he had attracted the attention of a network of conservative thinkers in Washington who were laying the groundwork for a revolt against Henry Kissinger's then-predominant foreign policy.

They asked him to come to Washington, to work in the Pentagon, and Wolfowitz agreed. He saw it as an intellectual challenge, and a chance to witness the bureaucratic machinations of American foreign policy firsthand.

Among the young conservatives Paul Wolfowitz befriended in Washington during the 1970s were Richard Perle, then an aide to former senator Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) and now the highly visible assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, and Kenneth Adelman, a prote'ge' of former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and now director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

They were a small cadre in those days, a kind of intellectual front inside the foreign policy establishment. Their aim, simply put, was to replace detente with policies that reflected what Wolfowitz and his friends still refer to as a new "realism" about the Soviet Union. Wolfowitz, for example, served in 1977 on the panel of State, Defense and CIA officials known as "Team B," which argued that American intelligence agencies were seriously underestimating the Soviet threat to the United States.

In various jobs at the Pentagon, Wolfowitz sounded other warnings, too. When he went to work in an office called Regional Programs at the Defense Department, his task was to analyze the strategic implications of major congressional budget decisions. He discovered that the Pentagon had developed no contingency plans for sending American troops to the Persian Gulf in a time of crisis.

"They said, 'Well, we don't plan forces for the Persian Gulf. The Shah (of Iran) takes care of the Persian Gulf for us,' " Wolfowitz remembers. "It was an extremely shortsighted approach."

Wolfowitz and Perle and Adelman and the rest were not reluctant to speak out, either. They were the conservative heirs to the Best and the Brightest -- young, ideologically passionate, committed to their beliefs as well as to their own careers.

"A lot of this country had become very naive in expecting, because of all the slogans about detente, that suddenly we were going to see a great transformation in the relationship between us and the Soviet Union," Wolfowitz says. "And unfortunately, that naivete' helped to encourage the Soviets into things like the Angola adventure, the Ethiopian adventure and ultimately the invasion of Afghanistan.

"Maybe they would have done it anyway. That's very hard to know . . . But the fact is that (our) group talked about some of these strategic objectives and was unfortunately fairly right. I mean, I suppose in a career sense I could say, 'Fortunately for me we were right.' But they are the kinds of predictions that you would just as soon be wrong about."

The salient point for both their policy ideas and their careers, of course, was not whether they were right or wrong, but whether they would ever come to power. Ronald Reagan's triumph in 1980 proved a watershed in both regards.

Perle and Adelman and other young conservatives such as Richard Burt quickly redefined American arms policy toward the Soviets. Paul Wolfowitz, however, was summoned to somewhat less visible quarters in the foreign policy establishment. He was asked first to head Alexander Haig's policy and planning staff at the State Department. A short time later, Haig's replacement, George Shultz, handed him the reigns of the Asian bureau. In Korea, New Zealand, Japan and especially the Philippines, Wolfowitz was asked to put his theories into practice.

They say he's changed. They say he's more pragmatic now, more willing to compromise. And some of the foreign service officers who work for Paul Wolfowitz in the East Asian bureau even use the word "softer" -- a concept that's anathema to any card-carrying conservative intellectual.

"What you hear about him is that he's a real hard-liner and that he's always focused on the use of military force," one bureau official says. But now "he's into whole new kinds of issues -- how you recognize the values of the American people in foreign policy, for one. He has gotten out of the sterile world of numbers and he is no longer just a right-wing bean counter. He has recognized that nations are not hard shells, they're made up of people with values . . . I don't hear him mention Richard Perle too much."

Another senior East Asian official says the changes in Wolfowitz are a "combination of being pragmatized by real life -- you know, you get married and it's not like in the books -- and also a certain effectiveness that group has had. The channel of thinking has moved a bit -- they've moved it."

"Working with Asia, and the legacies of Asia, one has to be practical -- the Asians insist on it," adds one of Wolfowitz's colleagues in the bureau. "You're dealing with a wide variety of people who are very hard-headed and practical."

But Paul Wolfowitz is disquieted by all of this talk about how he has adapted to the bureaucracy and become respected by both liberals and conservatives for his sensible pragmatism.

When told what his colleagues say about his "maturation" as a foreign policy architect, he laughs and says, "I'm not sure I like any of those descriptions. I think for one thing they underestimate how pragmatic somebody like Richard (Perle) is. And for another thing, it makes a big difference what issues one is talking about. I think if I was still in the arms control area, they'd be saying the same things about me that they say about (Perle)."

He is still an "ideologue," he insists. And as evidence, he cites his work in the Philippines -- precisely the policy that has provoked so much admiration among liberals for its pragmatism.

"One of the main things I'm trying to do in the Philippines is to prevent a communist victory there," Wolfowitz says. "I think one of the things that's certainly true about this administration is a very clear sense of what a communist alternative would mean for us and for the Philippines. We have no illusions like I think there may have been, that we could work with Khomeini or we could work with the Sandinistas."

These comparisons are an especially sensitive point with Wolfowitz. He is infuriated by the suggestion -- made frequently by Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of a House subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs, and repeated in a prominent New York Times article two weeks ago by former State official Leslie Gelb -- that he has devised a policy in the Philippines that is not very different from what President Carter's State Department did in Iran and Nicaragua.

"Given Reagan's critique of the failure of the Carter administration," says Solarz, "where they accused Carter of pulling the rug out from under the Shah and Somoza . . . one would have expected them to have embraced the Marcos regime and to have attempted to do everything in their power to prop it up. In effect, in its broadest terms, they are trying to do what the Carter administration tried and failed to do in Iran and Nicaragua, which was to induce reforms."

"If they're saying that what they tried to do in Iran, we're trying to do in the Philippines, that just shows how terrible their policy in Iran was," Wolfowitz snaps in reply, sounding very much like the brash young hard-liner he insists he is. "What Iran needed was a good dose of law and order . . . whereas in the Philippines, reform is precisely what is needed. And reform in the Philippines has a certain conservative character to it, because one is talking about restoring military professionalism, one is talking about a free market economy, and one is talking about going back to certain democratic traditions."

Another suggestion that peeves Wolfowitz mightily, and which was made in the Gelb article that he found so maddening, is that he and Armitage and other assistant secretary-level officials have devised a policy strategy for the Philippines in isolation -- that in their Monday Gang of Three meetings, they have worked independently from Secretary Shultz and President Reagan.

"That notion is just absolutely at variance with the facts," Wolfowitz insists. "As one example, twice during the course of last year, when (U.S. ambassador to the Philippines) Stephen Bosworth came back for consultations, the president met with him, I think in both cases for periods of more than half an hour. That in my experience is almost unique, that kind of discussion with a visiting ambassador. And we have had repeated meetings with Shultz . . .

"I sure wouldn't feel comfortable trying to make policy for something as delicate as this if I wasn't sure of what the president thought or what the secretary thought."

The truth is that despite Paul Wolfowitz's outbursts of youthful exuberance, he is tired. And that is why, next month, he will resign his job at the East Asia bureau and go very far away -- to Indonesia, assuming, as is expected, that the Senate confirms his nomination as ambassador.

"He's burnt out," says one of his friends at State. "He wants off the merry-go-round for a while. He's going out there to recharge his batteries."

Understandably, Wolfowitz himself is far more diplomatic about the matter. He says it is true that he would like a job -- for a time, at least -- that would permit him to spend more time with his family. But he is also taking the post because his wife holds a doctorate in anthropology and Javanese languages. "Indonesia is my wife's field and first love," he says. And, of course, he too finds Indonesia "a truly fascinating place" and looks forward to "the experience of being an ambassador and working overseas."

Some of the career-conscious foreign service officers who work with him at State, and who ironically invoke the name of Henry Kissinger when they talk about his intellect and his capacity for advancement in the foreign policy establishment, wonder whether Indonesia is the right place for Paul Wolfowitz to go next.

"He obviously has been moving up through a hierarchy. You could question whether this is up or not," says one of his colleagues. "The reality these days is that ambassadors are like messenger boys. I think Paul will go crazy out there."

Even though, as another colleague at State says, "It's certainly no insult to be an ambassador," there is no question that Wolfowitz's new life will require adjustments. "You get somewhat hooked on this kind of pace," the colleague says. "It gets tiring -- you jet out on a White House plane, you're off talking with a senator -- and you go home at night and tell your wife you think it's all too much.

"But she knows better."

So, too, does Wolfowitz. "It's going to be interesting to see how somebody who's become somewhat addicted to all of the Washington madness for 10 years or more will cope with withdrawal," he says. "But I think I'll cope quite nicely."

And then, feeling rested and recharged, he will return to the madness. About that, a friend at State says, "there can be no doubt."