This animal is very wicked. When you attack it, it defends itself. -- Elliott Abrams, quoting an old French proverb to describe himself

He negotiates the corridors of the State Department with a punctilious swagger, the hint of a smile playing about his lips. Let others worry about the spreading scandal. Elliott Abrams, patro'n of the contras, is no one's patsy.

It has been an arduous couple of months for the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. "Not a terrific time for the Reagan administration," he says with uncharacteristic understatement. Iran-o-rama, Contras 'n' Things -- the business is too ineffable for a tidy label. A crisis by any name, it has hurt the hard-won policy to help the anti-Sandinista rebels and, inevitably, raised questions about Abrams himself.

First came the downfall of his friend Ollie North, a participant in the weekly Nicaragua meetings that Abrams chairs in his office. ("The only problem I have with Ollie," Abrams said before the scandal broke, "is that he spends too little time on Central America.") Then came the revelation that Abrams, with Secretary of State George Shultz's blessing, solicited a secret contra-bution last summer from the oil-rich kingdom of Brunei, supplying the number of a Swiss bank account controlled by North. It transpired that after North's firing, Abrams told the Bruneians not to contribute. Too late: They had already deposited $10 million -- whereabouts unknown.

"An indelible blot on the record of a principled man," New York Times pundit Anthony Lewis wrote last month of Shultz, while likening Abrams to Wernher von Braun -- as in the Tom Lehrer ditty: Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?/ "It's not my department," says Wernher von Braun. In another recent column, after Abrams accused a Colombian journalist of working for terrorists and then invoked national security to keep the evidence under wraps, Lewis asserted, "There is a word for Elliott Abrams: coward."

"I feel like a mother who wants to defend her child," says Abrams' wife Rachel, beaming benignly as she sits Indian-style in their Northwest Washington home, caressing the head of their 5-year-old daughter. "I would like to take a machine gun and mow Anthony Lewis down."

At the State Department, Abrams grins when told of his wife's remark.

"I wouldn't waste the bullets," he chortles. "I would rather have them go to the contras. They would use them to more effect."

Although his portfolio includes diplomacy, Abrams is no diplomat. And though he was trained at Harvard Law, he is no mere defender. He describes himself, rather, as a "gladiator" for the Reagan Doctrine in Central America, ever ready to repulse or inflict the coup de gra~ce. Others consider him, in the words of one general, "the CINC of the contras" -- the commander in chief.

He supervises U.S. foreign policy with more than two dozen countries, but says he spends fully half his time on Nicaragua. He is chairman of the Interagency Group (drawn from the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency and State) that decides "everything that has to do with the spending of the $100 million" -- the congressionally approved aid that began flowing to the contras in late October. "You review the training programs, equipment programs, political and diplomatic strategy."

Battle plans, too? "No comment," he demurs.

Not yet 39, he is breathtakingly young for the job -- his third since joining the State Department in May 1981 to run the bureau of international organizations, whence he jumped a few months later to humanitarian affairs when the president's first choice, Ernest Lefever, drew decisive opposition in the Senate. At the time Abrams was all of 33, the youngest assistant secretary of the century. More than anyone save Shultz, he stands out in Foggy Bottom, presenting a large potential target as the fog clears away.

"It is absolutely logical and predictable that people are going to ask: How much did I know? Was I really involved in the whole thing?" he acknowledged recently over a 7 a.m. breakfast in the State Department cafeteria. "And there are two theories. One theory, as near as I can make out, is that Abrams ran the whole thing. He's Svengali. And the other theory is that he works for the State Department, he works for Shultz, and they were not involved.

"I don't like people thinking that I might have done something illegal. But I didn't. So it'll all come out in the wash. Meanwhile, there's really a very simple truth to it all: 'If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.' "

His physiognomy is all angles, framed by fiercely flaring brows. "Like an owl," ventures a Latin American diplomat. "When he holds his face with his right hand and looks at you sideways, with all this hair on his forehead, it's inevitable to think that you are before a psychiatrist being analyzed. Sometimes he looks a little conspiratorial. Whereas Mr. Shultz seems interested in listening and far more flexible, Mr. Abrams wants to lecture you, to tell you what to do. We have an expression, 'guante de ceda con mano de hierro' -- 'silk glove with an iron fist.' Mr. Abrams is the 'iron fist.' "

Nevertheless, he has been doing a delicate dance as events have overtaken his assertions.

"I can tell you that there was no government role in this flight," he assured the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs last Oct. 15, after the Nicaraguans shot down the cargo plane carrying Eugene Hasenfus. Later, when reports suggested an active government role in that and other contra supply flights, possibly including the participation of two U.S. ambassadors, Abrams said he was forgoing further comment in view of the ongoing investigation.

"I am really confident that nobody in this building had any idea of any contributions coming from a foreign government," he told United Press International on Dec. 4, two days before the Los Angeles Times broke the story about the Brunei solicitation. Asked later about the apparent discrepancy, Abrams said he had been referring specifically to a period in 1985, many months before he contacted the Bruneians.

Last week, Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.), former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, revealed that several committee members believed Abrams misled them in secret session in November about his role in seeking third-country contra aid. Abrams testified that he had no role, Durenberger said.

"He was called on the carpet for that and explained differences in his testimony -- not necessarily to everyone's satisfaction," Durenberger told The Miami Herald. "I wouldn't trust Elliott Abrams any further than I could throw Oliver North."

"He's entitled to his opinion," Abrams said over the weekend. "I find it scandalous that the former chairman is discussing that testimony. He may violate the rules of his committee -- I won't. I'm surprised that no one has called him on the carpet."

The Abrams esprit seems to have inspired the career foreign service officers who work for Inter-American Affairs. In comparison with the State Department ethos of sedate circumspection, Abrams' bureau glows with a sense of derring-do. "Some of the people in the European bureaus call us 'The Cowboys,' " says a Central America desk officer, who recently phoned a radio call-in show, identified himself, then launched into a rip-roaring defense of El Salvador policy.

"There is this idea that the government is an old dog, and you can walk up and kick it," says Robert Kagan, an Abrams deputy. "Well, people in the government do not like being the old dog."

Abrams, says a senior staffer, is "a man who tends to lash out, who does not tolerate fools. He doesn't scream. He just cuts the people out." Once, Abrams threatened to fire his secretary after she scheduled a meeting with someone he thought had wasted his time.

"He knew he could snap at me," says the secretary, Karen Smith de Ruiz, a close friend who now works for the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela. "He's extremely charming when he wants to be."

He is adept and tireless at working the press. This has led to suspicions among some that he is not beyond planting the occasional bogus story. Last October, after the Hasenfus shoot-down, The New York Times linked the plane to retired major general John Singlaub, a prominent figure in the private contra supply network. Singlaub called a press conference to refute the story. His associates believed it reflected the effort of some in the administration to end speculation about the flight by getting Singlaub to take responsibility.

"Jack's enough of a patriot that if they asked him, 'Would you please take the fall? Here are the reasons,' even though it was against his best interests, he would have done it," says retired lieutenant general Robert Schweitzer, former chairman of the Inter-American Defense Board. "But nobody ever asked him." A friend of Singlaub's, Schweitzer says he spent several weeks trying to discover the source of the erroneous story. He concluded that it was Elliott Abrams.

"I never, ever, ever said that General Singlaub was connected with that flight," Abrams insists.

For all his loathing of the Sandinistas, he can speak admiringly of their propaganda skills. "They're awfully good," he says. "Communists are always better at this than democracies are. They think in terms of manipulating the public opinion, which is absolutely at the heart of Leninism. They understand the importance of it, and some of the most talented people in any communist society are assigned to do it."

Abrams has shown particular enterprise in gauging his own public image, in one instance phoning a former college roommate, years out of touch, to debrief him on an interview conducted for this story.

"Everyone reports to the central committee," Abrams says jauntily.

Assessments of Abrams are wildly skewed and frequently impassioned.

"I put Mr. Abrams down as one who knows what he's doing," George Shultz told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month.

"Arrogant ... caustic ... a little too cute," says Rep. Peter Kostmayer (D-Pa.), a member of that committee.

"A dedicated man," says contra leader Adolfo Calero. "Very keen, intelligent, very astute in his judgment ... We understand each other. I call him 'Elliott.' He calls me 'Adolfo.' "

An aide to a Capitol Hill Democrat has tacked up Abrams' photograph like a "WANTED" poster.

"He is really an intellectual in combat," says syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, a close friend. "That scares a lot of people, because most intellectuals don't fight."

"He seems to have allowed the eminence of his post to go to his head," says Aryeh Neier, vice chairman of Americas Watch, an activist human rights group that has been scrapping with Abrams since his tour at humanitarian affairs. "I think he is behaving more and more irresponsibly as time goes on. I think that he is cavalier with the facts. And he is willing to engage in a level of vituperative attack on other individuals which is quite remarkable. I can't think of anything good to say about Elliott Abrams."

He sits coiled on a sofa in his vast sixth-floor office, pointing out photographs on a distant shelf: of himself with his late mentor, Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson (D-Wash.), the staunch anti-Soviet whom he served as special counsel in the mid-'70s; with the redoubtable Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), whom he left as chief of staff in 1979 to practice law and join the Reagan campaign; with Alexander Haig, his first boss at State; with Ronald Reagan at the White House; with Nancy on Air Force One. Framed nearby is a tract from a Cuban newspaper. It refers to Abrams as a "beast."

"You can trace my whole life history there," he says with the affability of a man who is happy in his work. He began his Washington odyssey as a Jackson Democrat -- who may have voted for Jimmy Carter ("I don't recall") in 1976 -- and came to rest as a Reagan Republican, changing his party affiliation in 1981.

He has a taste for the ideological jugular. He acquired it early, and has indulged it often, in the ranks of neoconservatism. This strain of thought was founded, paradoxically, by formerly ardent leftists, who conceive of recent history as a death struggle between the forces of freedom, led by the United States, and totalitarianism, led by the Soviet Union. Liberal Democrats -- "McGovernites," in this context -- tend to be Soviet dupes. It is not a game for the faint of heart.

"I'm not sure this is true of Elliott," says William Schneider, a longtime acquaintance who is a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, "but neoconservatives tend to take things personally. Personal attacks are one of their specialties. Some of them are real haters. They tend to be very ideological, in the old Trotskyite tradition. The language is that of denunciation and manifestoes. It's not based on reason and compromise and civility. The world is divided between Us and Them."

At the very center of the struggle is Nicaragua, a do-or-die test of American resolve, according to two famous lapsed leftists, Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter -- neoconservatism's royal couple and Elliott Abrams' in-laws.

"Is the United States ever going to take a firm stand?" wonders Decter, editor of Contentions, a neoconservative newsletter, and chairman of the Committee for the Free World. "The contras are particularly important in answering that question because they are right down the street, right at our back door."

"History chooses these odd battlegrounds," says Podhoretz, who edits his own journal, Commentary, and writes a syndicated column. "World War I started with the assassination of an archduke in an obscure place. My view -- and many of my political friends share this view -- is that the latest phase of the history of Soviet imperialism is being enacted and fought over in Central America."

If he is not "the highest-ranking Podhoretz," a designation he disclaims, Abrams shares a family trait for incendiary discourse. "This is the game I chose to play," he says of his confrontational style. "I think the choice is not an intellectual one. The choice is an emotional one or a subconscious one. It's who you are and the way you are."

Thus, in a letter to The New York Times last February, Abrams charged the aforementioned Lewis with "anti-Americanism" for "smearing United States policy in Central America."

A few months later, he told the Columbia Journalism Review that another critic, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador Robert White, is a "crank and fanatical hater of this administration," and that journalists Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens are "vipers."

During a July 1985 appearance on public television's "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," Abrams exploded when Kostmayer suggested that the administration was unconcerned about the murder of four American churchwomen in El Salvador. "You have made a charge," he informed the congressman, "which is not only false but I would say malicious and borders on the vicious."

"Blame America| Blame America| Never blame the communists|" he shouted at Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) during a "MacNeil/Lehrer" debate in December 1985.

"That's great rhetoric," Gejdenson rejoined.

Abrams, by his own account, has ventured "well over the frontier into incivility" during dust-ups on Capitol Hill.

"This is America," he says, expansively. "And so I like to go up there and talk and yell at people and answer their arguments as strongly as I possibly can."

Abrams has stopped yelling at a few select adversaries. After a period of constructive engagement, he imposes sanctions.

Hehas refused to appear with, among others, White of the International Center for Development Policy, Hitchens and Cockburn of The Nation and Jane Wallace of CBS. Last month, when the Baltimore Sun's Stephens Broening reported the length of Abrams' pauses at various points in an interview ("the cheapest shot I have ever seen," Abrams says), he dispatched his spokesman to tell Broening that he would never be granted another.

"Why is it my responsibility to go on the air with Alexander Cockburn?" Abrams demands. "Why is it my responsibility to appear on a platform with Robert White? I'm a citizen. I get to make these choices, too ... I will not waste my time on people who are, in my view, not credible, whose biases are such that you cannot have a reasonable discussion with them. Every journalist in America has the right to havea crack at me? Every journalist in America has a right to be on a panel show with Elliott Abrams? Wrong| We're not in a courtroom. I am not a judge. I am an official. I am busy."

Like many neoconservative activists, he is a copious correspondent, turning his epistolary attentions to magazines and newspapers large and small. He wrote a letter last November to Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic and a supporter of contra aid, after the magazine ran a cover story alleging a secret White House role in the contra supply network. Complaining of "innuendo" and "vicious calumny," Abrams concluded: "I do not subscribe to The Nation because I cannot abide this kind of journalism. While you are permitting it in your pages, and indeed promoting it in your cover stories, please delete my name from your subscriber list."

This was intended as a bit of ideological coercion. "The New Republic has a problem with schizophrenia," Abrams says. "It wishes to avoid losing its old liberal subscribers. It wishes to be on the front lines of both neoliberalism and neoconservatism. It seems to me that it is useful to dramatize the fact that the editors are refusing to make choices, and to try to force them to make choices about the kind of magazine they want ...

"This is a political battlefield. The opposition fights with every weapon available -- and we need to fight equally hard."

It is also a military battlefield. Exempted from the draft while a Harvard senior in 1969 because he suffers from scoliosis, instead earning a master's degree from the London School of Economics, Abrams now finds himself cast as the "field marshal" of the effort to destabilize the Sandinista regime.

"I'm not the field marshal," he protests with a laugh. "I don't substitute my judgment for people who are experts in military or intelligence activities. I guess you could say I direct political and diplomatic activities ... We joke around about it -- having us issued trench coats by the intelligence people and uniforms by the military ..."

He rang in the new year by announcing that 5,000 rebel fighters, joined in early December by additional, unspecified "thousands," had infiltrated Nicaraguan territory, where they are now poised for action.

These contras, Abrams promised, "are going to go all over the country and do lots of things."

Tomorrow: The making of an "intellectual in combat."