Any young conservative with 10 bucks can buy himself an Ollie cut and indulge in the illusion that his is a political statement. In a basement office -- a real basement office -- on the corner of 12th and G streets NW, they treat Marine life with greater gravity.

Sgt. Ray Beatty is a Marine recruiter in the heart of the District's downtown. When there's a tremor in the Corps' image he's among the first to feel it. This week Lt. Col. Oliver North touched off a quake.

"On the second day {of his testimony} they were in and out all day," he says. "The office traffic has been a continuous flow."

Beatty's supervisor, Gunnery Sgt. Dennis Holtmeyer, estimates that drop-in visits during North's testimony have risen from an average of five a day to about 15.

"He's always calm and people admire that," Beatty says of North. "A person is saying, 'If this is what the Marine Corps can do, I want to be like that.' "

"It boosts us a little bit," Holtmeyer agrees. "People say, 'Who is this guy? Why is he so popular?' "

The question might well be asked about the Marines. Enlistment nationally is running 109 percent ahead of last year's pace, but the surge apparently has little to do with headlines and sound bites. Consider that before North took his star turn, the Corps' most recent publicity concerned the alleged sexual escapades of Marine guards charged with compromising the security of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

"I wanted to do this since I was 8 years old," says Taza Taylor, a 17-year-old Anacostia High senior, who was signing up yesterday for deferred entry. "A couple days after graduation I want to be gone."

He is one of a legion, overwhelmingly black and male, who have coursed through the downtown office.

"Last year we did 273 percent" of the office goal, Holtmeyer says. "We'll probably do about the same this year. We reached our goal for the year on June 1. Everything after this is extra."

But what is it that brings these city kids in off the streets to volunteer for the most onerous boot camp of them all?

"That commercial, with the sword, that's an outstanding commercial right there," says Holtmeyer. " 'Does he have the metal to be a Marine?' They hear that line and want to take up the challenge. It lights a spark that's in every young man. And woman. We get some women."

To a branch of the military aimed at "the few, the proud," the flood of interest has been a mixed blessing.

"We got all types," Beatty says. "All shapes and sizes. We had drug dealers. They come in with their friends, wearing their gold. They say, 'Yeah, we're going to be Marines.' And we have to inform them that there is a strict policy against drugs. They say, 'I only deal the stuff. I don't use it.'

"Yesterday there was a guy in here. He weighed 400 pounds. We had to tell him there is a height and weight standard and you exceed that standard."

"He might come back if he is motivated enough," says Sgt. Darnell Ector, another recruiter. "His brother is a Marine, so that is a lot of motivation."

"How much weight does he have to lose?" Beatty asks.

"One hundred and seventy-three pounds," says Ector.

Some of the applicants are already looking for special assignments.

"Because we're in Washington we get calls from all over, people thinking we're the headquarters," Beatty says. "Who was that guy who called in from Ohio?"

"He said, 'Give me a gun and I'll go back to war,' " says Ector. " 'I'll put a bullet in Fidel Castro's brain. The president will never need to know about this. I'll train myself.' "

"I usually say, 'Hold on a second and I'll let you talk to my superior,' " Beatty says.

Television isn't the only medium insinuating Marines into the minds of the nation's young people.

"There's that movie out, 'Full Metal Jacket,' " Beatty says. "We got people coming in saying 'I want that.' And I have to tell them that was a dramatization. I thought when I first saw it this will scare people away from the Marine Corps. Some of them want the Rambo stuff, and then other people think you just wear dress blues all day long."

One hundred five wallet-size snapshots hang on the wall -- about half of last year's recruiting class, all wearing white hats and dress blues. There is not an indefinite jaw line in the whole keen-eyed, taut-cheeked bunch. The recruiter's job is to find candidates on whom that look will take hold.

"We ask them if they are involved with drugs," Beatty says. "They are usually pretty honest with us. If you get caught in a fraudulent enlistment, you're in more trouble than Oliver North."

The Marines also administer an intelligence test. "We have a list of words we ask them to read," Beatty says. "It starts with 'milk' and 'tree' and ends up with longer words."

Pamela Jackson, who sat in the office yesterday afternoon, has passed the test of the long words. After a year in college, the 19-year-old Capital Heights resident decided that the fastest route to a career working with cameras was through the armed forces. "I'm trying to decide between the Marines and the Air Force," she says. "I know the Marines are the toughest. But I like tough."

Blessedly, she comes to Beatty almost hype-free. The only boot camp movie she's ever seen is "An Officer and a Gentleman." And as for Oliver North: "Every time I look at that, I turn the channel."