The seeds of a strategy first took root in Ralph Neas' mind somewhere near the corner of 34th and Macomb. The radio was blaring in his '84 Renault and the thermometer was nearing 80 as he headed for work on the 26th of June. Then he heard the news: Justice Lewis Powell -- a moderate who had often served as the swing vote on crucial cases involving social issues -- had abruptly resigned from the Supreme Court.

"I'll never forget that Friday," says Neas, who, as executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, is one of Washington's highest profile civil rights lobbyists. Smelling action, he spent the next few minutes of his commute "planning the rest of the day -- knowing that there would be a large number of press phone calls, trying to figure out who I should call, knowing that if I did speak on the record it was reflecting the Leadership Conference. I would say it was a rather fast-paced eight to 10 minutes."

And no one had even mentioned Robert Bork.

Today is the opening of Washington's Great September Show -- the Bork confirmation hearings -- and the opposition is brimming with vinegar and hope. Nobody's counting the 51st vote yet, but recent polls as well as a divided American Bar Association verdict on the nominee have left the contest wide open. Which is good enough for Neas -- at least for now.

"When Bork was first named, most everyone in Washington thought {his confirmation} would be a fairly certain thing," says Neas, 41. "Obviously the nomination is no longer a certain thing. I'd like to think we're somewhat responsible. We have tried to educate people about Bob Bork."

Since that June morning, the Bork opposition has been led, in part, by this man, a ruddy-faced, shaggy-haired crusader who believes that President Reagan's nominee is a "serious threat" to liberty and personal rights in this country. He cites Bork's positions on abortion, voting rights and affirmative action as particular causes for alarm. His opponents, for their part, see Neas as a bit of an extremist himself. But they also know he's effective -- Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, for example, credits Neas with derailing his nomination for a senior Justice Department post -- so he's the cause of some anxiety on the Hill and in the White House today.

Neas is white, male, Republican and Roman Catholic, and he likes to say that made him 0-for-4 when he was hired in 1981 at the LCCR, a massive coalition of 185 civil rights groups from Planned Parenthood to the NAACP.

Among many other projects, the LCCR has been actively throwing roadblocks in front of Ronald Reagan's judicial nominees for six years. And ever since Reagan tapped Bork for Powell's seat, Neas and his allies have bombarded newspapers with opinion pieces, deluged senators with grass-roots mail, systematically analyzed Bork's judicial record and stated beliefs for the press and the Senate and conducted a seemingly endless series of secret strategy meetings.

Detractors snipe that Neas is much better at promoting himself than his causes, and granted, he loves to talk to the press. But his response is simple:

"That is part of my job," he says from his office in the dingy basement of a grand Dupont Circle town house. "A presidential news conference -- that makes the news. The civil rights community is usually relegated to a response paragraph at the end of a story. They are in power. We have to work hard to get the word out."

Indeed, the coalition is up against some big guns on this one. About a mile away, on Pennsylvania Avenue, a White House "executive committee" of sorts has been gearing up for the fight, which many see as one of the biggest and most critical of this administration. Success, they believe, could change the ideological direction of the court for years to come. In addition, the White House team wants to prove that there's some clout left in Ronald Reagan's wounded presidency.

Lobbying on both sides has been shrill. It's like a case study of a Washington political war, in which the conflict looms much larger than the individual it engulfs; Bork, Neas concedes, is "the type of person you and I would like to have a drink with at Jenkins Hill." The political process seems to turn into a public relations extravaganza, and winning becomes a goal in itself, independent of the specific issue under dispute.

Today they face off in the grand marble Dirksen hearing room, before klieg lights and crowds. Neas tends to describe the conflict in stark ideological terms. But lobbyist Tom Korologos, who has helped orchestrate the White House strategy, says it's a game of numbers. Period.

"Lemme tell you something," says Korologos. "Bob Bork ain't running for president. He ain't running for Miss America. He ain't running for Mr. Congeniality for the year. He's running for eight votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee and 51 votes in the Senate. Whatever gets us to that -- this is the goal, and the witness himself is our secret weapon."

Then, like a man trying distance himself from the fray, he says:

"I've been surprised at the ferocity of the opposition and the support. I've never seen anything like this. I think what it gets down to is that they haven't got anything to do. They haven't had a big civil rights fight in a long time."

No one disputes the point: These are the kinds of fights that invigorate Ralph Neas and the civil rights community. In the '60s they took to the streets over social injustices. But today the initiative often falls to a coterie of die-hard believers who have become remarkably adept at mobilizing support.

Particularly in the past seven years, they have considered themselves Davids challenging Goliath: a bunch of low-budget crusaders pitted against the nearly unlimited resources of an administration hostile to their point of view.

Neas can't remember the very first call he made when he arrived at work that June morning, but he thinks it was probably to Benjamin Hooks, chairman of the LCCR and executive director of the NAACP. The idea was to get the ball rolling by scheduling a massive meeting -- a rally of sorts -- and developing a strategy of opposition just in case. They simply assumed they wouldn't be happy with Ronald Reagan's choice to succeed Powell.

One of the next calls was to Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, another coalition that has spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to abort what it sees as the administration's effort to load the court system with conservative ideologues. Neas and Aron needed each other. She had the research and the expertise; he had the people power, the Hill network.

The first step was to send a message through the media. "We were certainly directly and indirectly trying to send a signal to the Senate and the White House that they send someone up like Powell," says Neas. "We were quoted as saying a Bork nomination would precipitate one of the most controversial congressional battles in many years.

"No one wanted a confrontation," he insists, though some think that's exactly what he did want. In any case, within a week, that's what he got.

After the Bork announcement, there were other meetings in the LCCR's gigantic conference room to set up task forces. Most of the big names in consumer activism, civil rights and the women's movement showed up: Hooks, Ralph Nader, civil rights veteran Joseph Rauh, former NOW head Eleanor Smeal, National Women's Political Caucus chairwoman Irene Natividad.

There, they decided on four areas of focus -- the media, grass-roots organizing, lobbying and research -- and began splitting up the work.

Natividad, for instance, was charged with mobilizing the women's rights activists. As chairman of the NWPC, she had the clout and contacts to pull together an impressive press conference of women's groups opposing Bork (it was held last Friday at the National Press Club). She was also assigned to help pressure the Judiciary Committee by generating rallies in each of the 14 states that members represent. (These rallies started last week and will continue this week.)

Neas addressed the group in sweeping terms, talking about the "future of civil liberties" and how Bork's confirmation would "turn back" critical strides.

"This situation will produce unprecedented intensity," he recalls saying. "And I think it's important to convey that intensity and that passion -- but when you are working either in Washington or on the grass-roots level, you have to make sure that intensity and that passion comes across in a productive and persuasive way.

"Don't be heavy-handed," he said. And they were off.

Ask Neas who's running the White House show and he says it's Korologos, a white-haired, compact bear of a man who handled congressional liaison work during the Ford and Nixon administrations. In civilian life, he's president of Timmons & Co. He's been everywhere, the opposition says. On the Hill. On the phone with reporters. In touch with conservative groups.

And most important, he's been preparing Bork during hours of rehearsal hearings known as "murder boards." Korologos says it's his job to ask all the tough questions in advance: "You know, like 'When did you stop beating your wife?' "

But he is reticent about calling himself the lead advocate here, and makes no secret of the identity of the real pro-Bork consigliere.

"Howard Baker," he says without a blink.

Baker has not been shy about leaning on his old congressional colleagues. "He got a list of calls to make like everyone else," says Korologos, who adds that the president's chief of staff is "invaluable because he's a former senator. He brings us the thinking. We all like to think we think like senators. But here's a guy who is one. He's a peer. We're nobodies."

The list of nobodies is fairly strong, nonetheless. The executive committee includes: A.B. Culvahouse, the White House counsel and an intimate of Baker; Will Ball, assistant to the president for legislative affairs; and Pam Turner, a congressional liaison officer who deals with the Senate.

White House insiders admit that Neas et al. were particularly effective in their efforts to portray Bork as a right-wing ideologue -- before the administration strategy was even formulated.

"In the beginning the opposition had us," concedes Korologos. "We had nothing going for us in the way of support by organized groups. The opposition mobilized faster. All we had was Bork himself."

And so, at Korologos' suggestion, the White House made Robert Bork available to everybody and anybody, particularly the press.

"Highly unusual," says Neas.

"It was our way of humanizing him and showing he didn't have horns," says Korologos. "But we had two criteria: He was not to talk about anything specific as far as legal issues or cases. He was to talk about his life and times and his favorite color ... And it worked. We showed he wasn't the right-wing kook they were trying to paint him as. We blunted their momentum."

Counters Neas: "I personally think the White House is waging a campaign of misinformation. They are trying to create a nominee who's consistent with their polling data. The administration is trying to repackage Robert Bork and I'm saying you can't change the contents.

"We expect him to be a very good witness, someone who will come across personally in a very good, attractive manner. But that alone should not mean you are the fifth and decisive Supreme Court vote on various constitutional rights."

Ralph Neas has been a fixture on the Hill for well over a decade. He came to Washington to work for former senator Ed Brooke (R-Mass.) a few years after graduating from the University of Chicago law school, and soon gained a reputation as a leading expert on civil rights legislation.

"Within a week, he knew everybody," says Melody Miller, longtime aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy. "Senators, staff. I had lunch with him a few days after he got here, and he was calling the waitresses in the dining room, the policemen, the elevator operators -- all by their first names."

Much of Neas' effectiveness on liberal causes harks back to those early years, when he developed a strong network of Republican friends and contacts, including Howard Baker's staff. "There are people you come to know and talk to who at times are on the other side of issue, but at least it gives you a sense of where you are going -- Ralph is one of those people," says White House communications director Tom Griscom, who says he tapped Neas for feedback on Bork early in the process.

"He's able to communicate with moderate Republicans," says Mark Gitenstein, chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee, "and as you know, so many of these votes turn on the moderate Republicans and southern Democrats."

When Brooke lost to Paul Tsongas in 1978, Neas went to work for newly elected Sen. David Durenberger as his chief legislative aide. It was on Valentine's Day in 1979 -- while in Minnesota trying to familiarize himself with his new boss' home state -- that Neas was stricken with Guillain-Barre' syndrome. Within weeks he was paralyzed from the neck down and placed on a respirator. He was 32 years old. He could not talk for three months. His weight dropped from 160 to 110. Every 20 minutes his lungs were suctioned. He was hospitalized for nine months. He was given the last rites.

"I certainly had more than a few moments to think about my life," he says with uncharacteristic understatement.

He eventually returned to Durenberger's staff for a short time, then took off for eight months in Europe to recover. He came back to Washington to the job offer at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

"Here I just came through an experience where I had been a disabled individual and here was a job that dealt with equal opportunity for disabled people, and victims of discrimination," he says. "Whatever happened in 1979 was not only important but there were some reasons for it happening. I learned a lot of lessons and I took the job."

Not surprisingly, helping the handicapped and minorities has been of particular interest to him in recent years. He's been one of the key operatives working to thwart the enactment of an executive order that would have eliminated minority hiring quotas among federal contractors.

He was also a primary architect of the compromise on the Voting Rights Extension Act of 1982. ("That was his baptism by fire," says Mary Frances Berry, a member of the Civil Rights Commission. "After that, no one doubted his commitment or sensitivity ... ") And there have been many more battles: extending the life of the Civil Rights Commission, fair housing, age discrimination -- in all of which he played a role.

But nothing, he says, equals the battle over Robert Bork.

"Without question, this is most important legislative battle we have ever fought," he insists, echoing his standard pep talk to the troops. "Because everything else we ever fought for is at stake.