Jerry Rafshoon's house in Georgetown is so thick with $100 contributors that Hamilton Jordan, the man of the hour, must climb halfway up the front stairs to address them.

"We've become totally shameless in what we're willing to do to raise money," the would-be senator from Georgia tells his supporters -- most of them, like Rafshoon and Jordan, refugees from the Carter White House. "Someone asked me a few minutes ago, would I return their phone calls? And I said, 'No -- not for $100.' "

"Same old Hamilton!" someone quips.

As Jimmy Carter's chief of staff, the man now leaning over the banister was famous for not returning phone calls, as well as for being, according to his detractors, "arrogant," "immature," "lightweight," "disorganized" -- and the litany goes on. "Hannibal Jerkin," Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill called him. The nickname stuck like Superglue.

But now Jordan -- pronounced "Jerdan," as it was once de rigueur to know -- is launching an enterprise that no one would have predicted. He is running for public office (something he swore he'd never do) and he's angling to return to Washington (a town he'd grown to hate by the time of Ronald Reagan's first inaugural). "It's irrational," says Eleanor Connors, who was his personal secretary in the White House. "But somehow, it was meant to be."

Thus New York Gov. Mario Cuomo will host a VIP fundraiser tonight at Cyrus Vance's home off Central Park, while influence impresario Robert Strauss is holding a $1,000-a-plate luncheon tomorrow at the Madison Hotel. Jordan's formal announcement is expected sometime next month.

Against the grim background of his immediate past, some see Jordan's candidacy as a celebration of life. That past now seems "like a bad dream, like it never happened," says his friend Tom Beard, watching the conservatively coiffed candidate work the crowd.

Beard owns a set of snapshots he took last fall -- almost in memoriam, it seemed to him at the time. They show Jordan, his second wife, the former Dorothy Henry, and their little boy, Hamilton Jr., huddled together in a pumpkin field on a farm outside Washington. It is a gray October day, bathing the family in a melancholy light. The young mother smiles a brittle smile. The blond boy frowns at his sneakers. The father looks soft and pale; pencil wisps of hair protect his otherwise naked pate.

At the time, Jordan had just started a course of chemotherapy at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda. The previous month, doctors in Atlanta had found a tumor the size of an apple pressing against an artery in his chest. Their diagnosis was diffuse histiocytic lymphoma, a fast-growing cancer of the lymphatic system.

Hamilton Jordan, the Bad Boy of the Carter administration, was a few days shy of 41 -- and by no means assured of reaching 42.

"I am a private person," he says. "That's one thing that's so interesting about this public persona I developed -- a rogue that goes up to women in bars. I haven't been to a bar in five years."

Much has happened since the boyishly tousled Jordan -- mugging with his White House sidekick, Jody Powell, from the pages of a rock 'n' roll magazine -- donned a zoot suit and a funny hat to usher in the populist presidency of Jimmy Carter. After that came "the pyramids" (as in, what Jordan allegedly admired on the Egyptian ambassador's wife at a dinner party), and then "Amaretto-and-cream" (as in, what he allegedly spat at a woman in a bar, prompting a 33-page official White House denial).

President Eisenhower's closest aide, Sherman Adams, fell from power in a scandal over a vicuna coat; someone once asked at a White House briefing if President Carter's closest aide wore underpants or not. "You'll be the last to find out," said press secretary Powell -- this, about the mastermind of one of the most brilliant political victories in American history.

With his divorce from his first wife, Nancy Konigsmark, in 1978, Jordan acquired the aura of a playboy; then came rumors of cocaine-sniffing at a New York discotheque, and the resulting lawyers' fees brought him close to financial ruin. At long last he was exonerated by a Justice Department special prosecutor; private legislation to pay his legal expenses is pending in the Senate.

"This image of me as a kind of buffoon from Georgia," Jordan says, "that was never me."

It's easier to say what Hamilton Jordan was not. He was not Jody Powell -- although the two are often confused. Says former Carter speech writer James Fallows, who angered many of his White House colleagues when he left to write a series of insider articles for The Atlantic: "Powell would have killed me if he could have. But Hamilton didn't seem that way. Whenever I saw him, he was the same genial, decent self he ever was."

And he was not Jimmy Carter. "Hamilton was the person who would always take time with someone," says Dot Padgett, the ex officio den mother of Carter's "Peanut Brigade," which won him the White House in 1976. "He could sit down and he could talk to you in depth, even about your own personal problems. Jimmy would probably not. You'd feel he didn't have the time.

"Jimmy Carter was always a very intense person. From his early childhood on, everything was well planned ahead. Hamilton didn't seem to have that intensity."

Indeed, Jordan's life can be seen as a triumph of serendipity over careful planning. Whether joining Carter's first gubernatorial campaign in 1966; or, after his candidate lost, volunteering to help refugees in Vietnam, where a rare tropical disease almost killed him; or, after his tour in the White House, helping start Camp Sunshine, a summer camp for children who have cancer, while seriously considering becoming a doctor himself -- he has never seemed to be following a premeditated career path.

"Ham didn't impress me as being a really ambitious person," says Stuart Marshall Bloch, a fellow volunteer in Vietnam. "He didn't impress me as being a very intellectually sophisticated person. He impressed me as being a very nice person."

Says Jerry Rafshoon, "You have Hamilton Jordan, the 'Machiavellian' political planner, and Hamilton Jordan the counselor at Camp Sunshine -- and they're both Hamilton Jordan."

It was also Hamilton Jordan who said in 1977: "I'll never run for anything. And that is a solemn promise. God, you see all the creeps you have to put up with!"

"Hamilton was famous for off-the-cuff, shooting-from-the-hip type comments like that," says Rep. Richard Ray (D-Ga.), who was Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn's top aide during the Carter administration. "Hamilton got the credit for writing Carter's strategy, and they won an impossible victory -- and all those things puff a fellow up. There was a cockiness there, a feeling of invincibility."

If Jordan and company had not been so full of themselves, says Ray, "I think the whole situation would have been different -- and Carter might still have been president."

"Lord," Jordan says, bowing his head over a bowl of soup, "make us thankful for this food . . ."

It is a bleak, wet day in December. Jordan, nearing the end of his chemotherapy, has just made up his mind to run for office. At the Bethesda town house his family has rented for the 18 weeks of treatment, he joins hands with his wife and a lunch guest, saying grace in a manner at once practiced and barely intelligible. The well-worn phrases tumble out half-swallowed.

"Blessus," he hurries on. ". . . thank you for our good health Amen."

Grinning serviceably, he wears the dull gray attire of a serious man. Creases of experience set off the green eyes. Ample of middle, he is incontestably middle-aged. The only vestige of past glory is an inscribed silver box on a nearby shelf -- a gift from the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The only vestige of past frivolity is a baseball cap. It warms his denuded head.

"I've always been kind of vain about my hair," Jordan says, attacking his split-pea soup. "But in the larger scale of things, it's unimportant. Steroids will give you a puffy look. There are a number of other little side effects that aren't pleasant lunch-time conversation.

"I don't know how much of what I'm displaying is an emotional mask. I think most of it is real. You never know how you're going to do with something like this until it hits you in the face . . .

"It's not easy," he goes on. "This has not been easy -- the boredom of being sick, of taking pills. But the body adapts. It's resilient. I've done the best I could."

"He wouldn't say this, but he has been extremely courageous through all this," says Dorothy Jordan, a nurse by training, auburn-haired, model-pretty and 29.

"Of course I wouldn't say that," her husband huffs, summoning up one of his smirks of yore. "That's what I have you here for." She fixes him with a wifely gaze. He continues his teasing. "Oh don't say that! I have not been courageous."

"He has," says Dorothy, undeterred. They met through mutual friends after his marriage fell apart. She has a master's degree in pediatric oncology, and it was her idea to start Camp Sunshine three summers ago. Jordan flirts with her across the table, saying, "I know a political asset when I see one."

They have received more than 1,000 letters in the months since his diagnosis, many from perfect strangers offering prayers and support. "Some of it is Senate mail," he says, "some of it is what we call 'cancer mail.' "

"Hamilton," Dorothy says in a tight voice, "I don't like that reference. Let's call it 'get-well mail.' "

He polishes off his third bowl of soup.

"You see this is not affecting my appetite," the candidate says expansively. The talk goes on in this breezy fashion, continuing into the living room, until the subject of Hamilton Jr., now 2, comes up.

"That was the saddest thing about the first few days and weeks -- that I wouldn't see him grow up. That was the saddest thing."

Jordan's eyes well up, and he struggles to keep his composure.

After Carter's humiliating defeat, Hamilton Jordan returned to Georgia -- something he had planned to do in any case, win or lose. Since he went back, he has prospered; his life has opened up.

He reversed his "negative net worth," as news stories described it, with smart real estate investments, a thriving consulting business and proceeds from "Crisis," his White House memoir. He built a rambling ranch house in Lawrenceville, a suburb of Atlanta, and became a father.

Yet in time he found himself getting restless.

"I spent four or five years accumulating material things," he says, "and found out that these had not meant that much to me. After the 1980 election, I basically ran away from politics. . . . But after this illness . . . I felt like I had a second chance."

It is, he concedes, "a big leap from 'Hamilton's got cancer' to 'Hamilton's running for the Senate.' Jimmy Carter was very, very surprised when I told him." Carter was unavailable for an interview.

Jordan's friends may have been astonished by his sudden aspirations to public office. But for Jordan himself, cancer-to-candidacy has been a natural progression. Had he not experienced the former, he says, he would never have considered the latter. "No, because, if I hadn't gotten cancer I don't think I would have had this kind of a self-analysis in terms of my past life and my future life . . . You know, 'What am I gonna do with the rest of my life?' "

Former senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who has followed Jordan's case with interest, faced a similar dilemma when he came down with a milder variety of lymphoma in 1984. His own response was to give up the hectic Senate and spend more time with his family.

"Anybody who has been through a situation where they faced up to 'your harsh realities,' " Tsongas says from his Lowell, Mass., home, "is going to be more 'bedrocked,' if you will. It gives you a perspective on life's priorities that most people, fortunately, never get."

According to friends, family and himself, Jordan is both the same as ever and much transformed since his White House days. They give reasons that range from his struggle with mortality to his happy marriage to simply getting older and wiser.

"I think my ideology has changed," says Jordan. "I've gotten more conservative as I've gotten older."

Former attorney general Griffin Bell says, "I think he's matured greatly," while Bob Strauss credits Dorothy Jordan with "helping Hamilton come to peace with himself and with life." Walter Mondale, meanwhile, has noticed more of a spiritual side to his old associate. "I think he's always been religious," says the former vice president, "but it's been less obvious in the past. Maybe this shock has something to do with that."

"Once you've had cancer," says Jordan's 75-year-old mother, Adelaide, herself a victim of lung cancer, "you change the way you do a lot of things. It's very difficult to understand if you've never been handed this diagnosis."

Ironically, on the mid-September day that Jordan was being handed his diagnosis at Emory University Hospital, his mother was at the outpatient clinic across the street, being told that her own cancer was in remission.

"I had a premonition that something was not right," Jordan says. He had been experiencing a "feeling of having blood trapped inside my head." His face flushed, he had gone to his Atlanta doctor, who had sent him at once to Emory for a battery of tests. Doctors there discovered the tumor, distending the veins in his neck.

The old Carter network immediately sprang into action. Jordan talked to Carter and Carter talked to Konigsmark, Jordan's ex-wife, who is currently the former president's scheduler. Carter fundraiser Nate Landow talked to Walter Mondale. Mondale talked to Carter. And so on. Jody Powell recalls that people who hadn't been in touch in months now seemed to be phoning one another every few minutes.

Jay Beck, Jordan's boyhood friend from Albany, Ga., and now his campaign manager, promptly took a leave from his political consulting job in New York to be at Jordan's side. Beck's coworker, Alicia Smith, who had been a secretary in the White House, placed and fielded hundreds of calls. After CBS News mistakenly reported that Jordan had inoperable lung cancer, Smith spent nine straight hours on the phone. When she was done, there was a two-page, single-spaced, typewritten list of worried people.

"I was devastated," says Jordan's erstwhile secretary, Connors. "Of all the people you'd think of getting cancer, Hamilton was just about the last."

"Here's Ham, who's so young, and it's a blow," says Mondale.

"I was sad and I was scared. I prayed," says Konigsmark. "But Hamilton has always been able to handle things. I knew he'd handle it either way."

Jordan, a nonsmoker, jogger and tennis player, was no stranger to the disease. Besides coping with his mother's illness, he had watched his father die of prostate cancer in 1978. And then there was his experience at Camp Sunshine -- "tough," as Beard puts it, "with Hamilton and Dorothy going to funerals every two or three weeks." But Jordan, a counselor at the camp in the mountains of north Georgia, also learned to be hopeful about cancer. "You're torn up by the children that you leave," he says, "but you always say, 'Look at this beautiful little girl here, and she's cured.' "

Because of the nature of his lymphoma, Jordan was accepted into a chemotherapy study already under way at the federally funded National Cancer Institute. His doctors put him on a protocol of eight different drugs, administered intravenously over six three-week cycles. Although the treatments drained him physically, made his hair fall out and gave him a puffy pallor, he was otherwise unscathed. He even managed to keep up his regimen of jogging. By his third chemotherapy cycle in November, the tumor was completely gone. By early January, his color had come back. On Jan. 28, as he prepared to launch his campaign, he released a letter from his doctors describing his prognosis as "excellent." At a press conference in Atlanta, he announced that he was cured.

"Hamilton says he's cured and he may well be right," says Dr. Robert C. Young, chief of medicine at the National Cancer Institute. "It's just that we'll need to follow him for a longer period. There's a great deal of optimism about [diffuse histiocytic lymphoma]. It's one of the great success stories of modern cancer treatment."

"He's a tough man," says Jeffrey Weber, Jordan's principal doctor at the institute. "Grace under pressure is pretty much what he's done."

It seems that Jordan, ever the detached strategist -- famous for his "eyes only" presidential memos -- took notes as he fought for his life.

"I did take some notes every few days," he admits somewhat sheepishly, adding that he didn't really need them. "I have a vivid memory."

Remembering the final days of the Carter administration, Jordan once wrote: "The Washington establishment was like a pack of jackals, lurking near a wounded animal, smelling its blood . . . Now that their prey was dead, they descended on the carcass with a vengeance."

Now a principal victim wants to live and work at the scene of the crime.

"Deep down these guys weren't evil guys," says Time magazine columnist Hugh Sidey, establishmentarian nonpareil, "but I think they behaved as boors when they were in power, quite honestly. They had a contempt for tradition and for history, if you will."

When Sidey, speaking for many Washington insiders after Ronald Reagan's victory, implied in a column that the Carter presidency had lacked "class," the Georgians, to put it mildly, were outraged.

"It'll sure be interesting," Jordan says, when asked how he'll behave should Sidey cross his path. "I hope graciously."

Jordan is ready now -- he says after some hesitation -- to join the club he once reviled. On recent trips north, he has been paying his respects to such venerable institutions as the Sperling Breakfast; as a senator, he insists, he would be perfectly willing to attend the occasional Georgetown dinner party. "It's not my objective to be a social butterfly, but I will do the things that are necessary."

Of course, he may not get the chance.

He has informed every Democratic officeholder in Georgia via a mass mailing of his intentions to run for the seat now occupied by Republican Sen. Mack Mattingly. In recent weeks, he has been dutifully seeking counsel from the Georgia congressional delegation.

"When Hamilton called me," says Rep. Ray, "I suspected he was returning one of the 14 phone messages I left for him when he was with Jimmy Carter. I honestly, sincerely hope he's recovered from his malignancy. I saw Sam Nunn, a 32-year-old man, lose 25 pounds running for the Senate in 1972. I even get tired campaigning in the 21 counties of my congressional district. He's got an awesome situation facing him at this point."

"The damnedest thing," Jordan says, "is that people down there are not concerned about my health."

Jordan, for his part, says he is more concerned about Rep. Wyche Fowler Jr., who, as the candidate with the biggest war chest, is considered the front-runner in a field of four. And Fowler is clearly concerned about Jordan.

"I can't spend my time trying to do business here in Washington," he snaps, "with you people in the media writing about Hamilton Jordan every day."

Dorothy Jordan says she's delighted with the coming campaign. "It's not added stress," she says, with the sunny determination of political wives everywhere, "it's a positive push. It gives Hamilton more energy. He just gets fired up."

The political neophyte must put up with a fair amount of hazing from the master strategist. Sitting with Jordan on the back stairs of Rafshoon's house, she is asked about the prospect of stumping on her husband's behalf. "I'm excited about it," she says earnestly. "It's exciting and interesting to meet the people around the state."

Jordan bursts out laughing. "Aren't you just excited and stimulated by it?" he says, grabbing his wife by the nose, and pinching it in most unsenatorial fashion. "Excited and even interested?" "Stop," she protests, nasally. "Really, this is impossible."

With his announcement weeks away, Jordan has already been crisscrossing the state, making his pitch to voters mainly on bread-and-butter issues, and casting himself as a moderate alternative to the more liberal Fowler.

"It's going to be good to be my own man, instead of carrying out someone else's agenda," he says. "I'm not coming up here to vote against Reagan. I'm coming up here to work in Georgia's interest. I tend to believe in giving presidents the benefit of the doubt."

As for Hamilton Jordan, onetime presidential aide, doubt is not something he's inclined to entertain.

"There are no guarantees in life. I don't have a 100 percent prognosis. But I wouldn't be putting myself and my family through this -- and I wouldn't be asking the people of Georgia to take a chance on me -- if I didn't think that I was cured.

"I've had a great life. I've been very lucky, and continue to be lucky and plan on continuing to be lucky."