In the beginning, as conservatives watched the pageant of witnesses during the Iran-contra hearings, they believed the Reagan golden age had been torn from them and deposited in Albert Hakim's Swiss bank account.

"We didn't know these people," says Burton Yale Pines, vice president of the Heritage Foundation. "I mean, who is {retired major general Richard} Secord?"

They lapsed at first into a malaise. "Anytime you're going to have show trials -- and that's what these hearings are -- you're worried. There's great apprehension and great anxiety," says Pines.

But with Lt. Col. Oliver North's tremulous testimony, they heard a bugle. Overnight, they were transformed from the battle-weary to the battle-ready. It was as if a new conservative gene had mutated -- spliced together by contempt for Congress, disillusionment with Ronald Reagan and admiration for North. Once again, the enemy within was obvious: the Congress, the State Department, the press.

Or, as Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) puts it, "We could survive the Soviets, but we might not survive our own politicians." A leader of the Conservative Opportunity Society group in the House, Gingrich says: "The left has started a no-holds-barred struggle to see if they can retain power in the country . . . If Reagan is the Reagan of mythology, it's time to strap on the gun and reenact 'Death Valley Days.' The country expects it on a subliminal level. Reagan's problem is that North and Poindexter are truly tough. Now he has a real war."

For post-Reagan conservatives, loyalty to ideology is the chief operating principle of government, and they see the Democrats as the party of national betrayal. History, they claim, will absolve them. And they are playing on the recurring nightmare of Vietnam, the lost war that North claims justifies his efforts for the Nicaraguan contras.

"This time do we get to win?" asked a plaintive Rambo, before he let fly his explosive-tipped arrows.

But it took North, the real Vietnam veteran, to inject the sentiment into the politics of the late 1980s.

"We didn't lose the war in Vietnam," he told the Iran-contra committees. "We lost the war right here in this city . . . I came back from a war that we fought in Vietnam to a public that did not understand, in my humble opinion, they had been lied to. The American public did not know what we suffered, what we endured, or what we tried to achieve. And I think the same thing prevails for the Nicaraguan resistance today."

"North," says Gingrich, "is carrying the notion that the flag is the symbol of the country you risk your life for, not the symbol of the government that was willing to kill you {in Vietnam} -- the American government."

It is a primary assumption of this new conservative strain that, since Watergate, the Democratic Party has dealt with conservative successes by staging coups.

"The larger issue is that they've lost power in the country, and the only way they can destroy what we have is through these hearings in collaboration with the liberal press," says Patrick Buchanan, the former White House communications director. "It's the permanent government's way of administering a coup d'e'tat."

These conservatives stress that the loyalty of appointees, above all, must be to the spirit of the leader, if not the leader himself. Poindexter, therefore, is hailed as "truly tough" for approving the diversion of funds from Iranian arms sales to the contras.

"The diversion was a neat idea," says Buchanan, quoting North. "The purpose -- to save the contras -- was noble."

(During his White House tenure, Buchanan had other thoughts. Commenting on the Iran arms sale in a Nov. 12, 1986, memo to then chief of staff Donald Regan, Buchanan wrote, "The appearance of things is that we have negotiated with a terrorist regime more detested by the American people than the Soviet Union . . . Not since I came here has there appeared such an issue which could do such deep and permanent damage to the president's standing.")

The Hero The post-North conservatives feel as though they have tumbled through a time warp. Suddenly it is the 1950s, and they, in a manner of speaking, are the communists. The liberals have assumed the inquisitorial roles of Joe McCarthy and Dick Nixon.

"It's an almost exact turnaround of the 1950s, when the congressional committees went after the communists. Now they're going after the anticommunists," says J. Michael Waller, the research director of the Council for Inter-American Security and national secretary of Young Americans for Freedom. "They have to work in secret, run the constant fear of being exposed, have criminal charges brought against them and be investigated. It's very strange."

As the Iran scandal unfolded, a "state of siege" mentality had enveloped the conservative movement, according to Waller. And then appeared "a person who symbolizes all we have been working for" -- and who refused to be thrown to the wolves. Instead, Oliver North used the hearings to entrance viewers with his breathless account of Tom Clancy's novel "Red Storm Rising."

"These little vultures in Congress got their match," says Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation.

To such conservatives, North is an event-making hero because he twice flouted congressional will: by the diversion to the contras and by his unapologetic testimony. "It was a big lesson for the right," says Gingrich. "Robert McFarlane attempted to deal with the committee as if they were reasonable men with reasonable values. North said they are unreasonable men with unreasonable values. The country, for the first time in my lifetime, saw the left wing of Congress face-to-face . . . This is the battle line . . . It raises the question of who investigates whom."

What North did was to sound the deep organ note that most stirs the right. "When I was 10 years old, I was an anticommunist," says Richard Viguerie, the New Right direct-mail operative. "Instead of shooting Indians I was shooting communists in my head. At the heart of conservatives, there is this anticommunism. Ollie strikes at the core of belief like nobody else, including the president."

"Oliver North is the Great Communicator, our briefer of choice," says Morton Blackwell, who, as the White House Office of Public Liaison's conduit to the conservative movement, discovered North's public speaking ability and put it in the service of the pro-contra cause. (Blackwell left the White House in 1984, becoming president of the Leadership Institute, a New Right academy for organizers, and vice chairman of the Virginia Republican Party.)

North, these conservatives believe, is one of them. They are sure of his devotion; he is not, say, a neoconservative.

"We had in the Reagan administration anticommunists who were rejects from the Democratic Party," says Blackwell. "Neoconservatives tend to be real good in infighting in the bureaucracy. But in terms of a grass-roots base, they have got none . . . Oliver North is a supporter of the conservative philosophy across the board. He's in favor of the free market and traditional values."

The gratitude the right feels for North is immense. "You can't go to a conservative group without having North discussed," says Howard Phillips, president of the Conservative Caucus. "There is unreserved enthusiasm about what he has done for us."

Conservatives interpreted the shift after North's testimony of 14 percentage points in public support for the contra cause (still not a majority) as proof that their ideology is correct.

"He reaffirmed a view we had long held but which had been obscured by recent events, that if we told our story the public will support our view," says Weyrich. "That is conservative doctrine, that we have a theoretical majority in the countryside and Washington is out of sync. This reaffirmed our view: Ollie North, hero of America; George Shultz, hero of Washington."

North, as these conservatives see it, is far more than the latest fragment of Warholism blown through the culture for the requisite 15 minutes. "I've seen a lot of comments from people who don't like what is happening that this is ephemeral, a one-shot thing, that support for Ollie will dissipate," says Jack Wheeler, a professional adventurer and North friend. (Wheeler was the first to convince members of the White House staff to adopt the notion later called the Reagan Doctrine -- the rollback of communism in the Third World -- as the rationale for contra support.)

"Ollie's effect will be long-lasting," continues Wheeler. "It won't go away. Ollie's testimony will be on videocassettes. Millions of Americans will watch Ollie again and again. He just kicks their asses, bludgeons them."

Jack Abramoff, president of the International Freedom Foundation, who was associated with North on the contra cause when North was on the NSC staff, is among those rushing a video of North's greatest hits into production. "He was always appreciated by the movement," says Abramoff. His tape will include North's complete pro-contra slide-show, which he performed for the committee without the slides. That, Abramoff complains, was "unfair."

North, however, serves the movement as more than a transcendent ideological figure. His image presents a material opportunity as well. "From a direct-mail standpoint, it's been a desert out there," says Viguerie. "When you have the North types, you excite people, the base." Within the next month, Viguerie's operation will send out about 5 million fund-raising letters mentioning North.

One of these appeals, from a letterhead organization called the Emergency Project to Support Col. North's and the President's Freedom Fight in Central America, purports to be conducting a "national opinion poll." The question: Should North be "jailed as left-wingers want," or "given a patriotic medal of honor?"

Fantasies about how North might help the movement are rife; many have North entering the electoral arena. His testimony is sometimes compared to the dramatic political debut of another nonpolitician: Ronald Reagan, who, during the final days of the Goldwater campaign in 1964, delivered his patented "Speech" on a paid television broadcast.

Perhaps North might run in the 1988 Republican senatorial primary in Virginia, challenging Sen. Paul Trible, a member of the Iran-contra committee. "Trible has lost all conservative support," says Viguerie, who has not been notably fond of Trible in the past.

Or perhaps North might run for the U.S. Senate from New York, challenging the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- an idea advanced in a syndicated column by William F. Buckley Jr., editor of National Review, the largest circulation conservative publication. And the dreams, for some, are even grander:

"Why not run him as a draft movement for president in the Democratic primary?" Viguerie wonders aloud. "It would wreak havoc. It would be like George Wallace without the racial issue. You could think of scenarios in states where he could get 30 percent plus."

Weyrich, on the other hand, believes that North's future does not lie in seeking elective office. "If he were to run he would drop 30 points in the first week. It would all seem a crass political deal. To stay political, he has to stay nonpolitical."

"Ollie's emergence is closely analogous to that of Charles Lindbergh," says Blackwell. "He became a hero overnight. That's the analogy, not the Reagan analogy. Lindbergh had a lot of people who followed him then." In fact, the Lone Eagle was an icon of the old right, a spokesman for the "America First" movement that opposed U.S. intervention against Hitler.

No matter which heroic mold North finally fits -- the new Lindbergh or the new Reagan -- conservatives eagerly anticipate his presence at the vanguard of their phalanx. "As the situation clarifies with North and the prosecutor," says Viguerie, "he will take the opportunity to advance the causes he's interested in. Clearly, with the wimps in this administration he has no future."

Vietnamization On the right, Reagan's failure to watch North on television and to embrace him afterward is considered symptomatic of Reagan's decline. "First Reagan called him a hero, and then he backed off," says Wheeler. Even a presidential pardon of North, if he's indicted, may not be sufficient to restore Reagan in their eyes.

Once hailed as the alpha and omega by the right, Reagan is now regarded as a fading figure. "The conservative movement benefited by North's testimony," says Weyrich. "But Reagan didn't particularly. Reagan doesn't benefit by anybody's."

If Reagan does not use his administration in its remaining months as an instrument for the movement, these conservatives will have little use for him. "The guy with the biggest personal shadow is Reagan," says Gingrich. As North's image brightened, the president's dimmed. "The question," as Gingrich puts it, "is whether Reagan creates a springboard for the rest of us."

And if the president fails to measure up to the movement standard, says Phillips, "history will record that the Soviet Union is stronger when Reagan leaves office than when Jimmy Carter turned over the office."

What the right is looking for is a strongman with populist appeal. The need for a post-Reagan image of strength is crucial to conservatives. But new images may prepare the way for new leaders.

For years, the rhetoric of Reagan and other conservative politicians has sprung from the experience of World War II -- appeasement at Munich, Fortress America, betrayal at Yalta. Now, after "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" have unreeled, and North has testified, the discussion on the right has moved forward in time.

The stab-in-the-back notion attributes difficulties in Reagan's foreign policy to his domestic critics. If the policy doesn't work as desired, it is because the policy hasn't been given a fair chance. This point is buttressed by reference to history -- especially to Vietnam.

"We kept waiting for a reaction to Vietnam," says Weyrich. "It never happened. But North taps a chord which had been suppressed. Vietnam veterans say: Why did we lose? He taps into it. So far, none of the presidential candidates has understood how to exploit this vein."

By his testimony, North has given a contemporary ring to the right's rhetoric of recrimination: "The Congress of the United States left soldiers in the field unsupported and vulnerable to their communist enemies ... You then held this investigation to blame the problem on the executive branch."

The real front is at home: Nicaragua is Vietnam redux.

Their Struggle For the right, the Iran-contra affair is not considered an isolated incident, but part of a long, grueling struggle for power in America. The Democrats' underhanded efforts to thwart them have intensified, but the conservative infrastructure and its influence has expanded since Watergate. And the current scandal is far more ideological than Watergate.

"Nixon's White House was full of slimy creatures," says Pines of the Heritage Foundation. "Watergate was strictly political, not a matter of policy and principle . . . Watergate had this absolutely different motivation. The Nixon White House stood for absolutely nothing but power. This is absolutely different. To sit and watch Oliver North -- dynamite!"

As in Watergate, such conservatives contend, the domestic opposition has shown its willingness to win by manipulations in Washington what they lost by elections. The impulse of the conservative movement is to roll back enemies, within and without.

"In Washington the standards of what is right and what is wrong are utterly different from what a conservative believes," says Buchanan. "We don't even speak the same language. We are two countries."