The definitive Stu Spencer story: Just before the 1976 Republican convention, Gerald Ford's reelection campaign, led by Spencer, was on the ropes after a draining battle with Ronald Reagan for the nomination. Ford trailed challenger Jimmy Carter by 30 points in the polls and needed to be told the dismal truth: The more the voters saw him, the less they liked him. Simply put, he was seen as a bumbler.

In a now celebrated meeting, Spencer and Chief of Staff Dick Cheney urged Ford to adopt a "Rose Garden" strategy, to campaign from the White House so he would at once appear presidential and lessen his exposure. The president balked. Cheney and Spencer shuffled their feet.

Finally, Spencer, with characteristic bluntness, laid it on the line.

"Forgive me, Mr. President," he explained, "but as much as you love it -- you're a {expletive} campaigner."

It was a classic Spencer move. "Shock treatment," says the guru of GOP campaigns today. "It's a short time frame and you gotta get a lot done."

Those who know the 61-year-old Spencer relate this tale with glee. After all, how often does an operative speak that way to a president of the United States?

But more than an amusing anecdote, the story speaks to Spencer's legendary ability to pinpoint where the electorate is on any given day, and point his "lead dog" in that direction.

"Sometimes," he says, "the approach is different: I just love 'em to death."

Says Gerald Ford: "With Stu, you ignore the language. He understands what the public wants and can turn that into campaign results. The evidence is pretty good that his advice to me was first class. We were trailing by 33 points; we lost by two."

It is precisely those two percentage points that brought Spencer to where he is today. He had quarterbacked Ronald Reagan's two successful California gubernatorial campaigns, advised senators and congressmen like California's Pete Wilson and Michigan's Don Riegle (the Republican-turned-Democrat) and was a key strategist in Reagan's '80 and '84 presidential landslides.

But it was Ford's 1976 loss to Carter that continued to stick in his craw. And so, this year, even before George Bush chose his vice presidential nominee, Spencer had asked Bush campaign chairman James Baker if he could oversee the VP effort.

"One of the biggest mistakes I made in '76 was not paying attention to {Ford running mate} Bob Dole," he says, slouched in a chair in his room at the J.W. Marriott. "And Bob's not the easiest guy to hold, as you know."

Twelve years later, at the Republican convention in New Orleans, he got his chance for self-redemption. Within hours, he had swung into Quayle Control. "It'll pass," is the only thing he'll admit to telling Sen. Dan Quayle in the course of those early, endless meetings; trying -- in his words -- to "buck up" the junior senator from Indiana during the news explosion over how and why he joined the National Guard in 1969.

"My first thought," says Spencer, "was: 'He's got to survive. It absolutely destroys the ticket if he has to go.' You had a problem. You didn't want to compound the problem."

Campaign manager Lee Atwater says Spencer was invaluable as a "mother hen" to Quayle. He stayed with Quayle on the road for two weeks, employing a favorite gambit -- eliminating spontaneous "press availabilities" so that only the campaign's predetermined sound bite would dominate the network news (See Spencer Rule No. 3, below).

He also knew that he could not overwhelm Quayle -- a novice national campaigner -- with an avalanche of facts and an army of new advisers. With his new team, which included White House veteran Joe Canzeri, "he kept the briefings short -- and small," in the word of a Quayle aide.

Despite continued scrutiny of Quayle's qualifications -- and unresolved questions about his Guard service and academic record -- Spencer says he believes his client has turned the corner. As a measure of his new confidence, he has stopped traveling full-time with Quayle.

By last week, even a few hardened Democrats seemed ready to concede that after a rough start, Quayle's effort might have begun to resemble a real campaign.

And the old GOP warhorses around town just knew: Mr. Been-Around-the-Track had left his mark again.

This Pol for Hire Lee Atwater may be able to tell you how every state has voted for 50 years; and Jim Baker sits high above the fray emanating stature, calming the internal chaos and defining the Big Picture.

But it's Stuart Krieg Spencer who's the Purveyor of Pulse, the one-man poll, the A-wire to how things play in the heartlands. He operates by his own set of rules, his own instincts, which, he says, rarely fail him. "It's just that Irish pol feeling you get," he says unabashedly. "Some people have it, some don't." A former Democrat, Spencer believes one reason he's been so successful is that he's a Republican who thinks like the enemy.

Still, no one would ever accuse Spencer of clinging to ideology.

Some dismiss him as the archetypal hired gun, a mercenary of sorts, who will mold -- or sacrifice -- anyone or anything to satisfy public demand. "I have never known him to show any interest in issues," sneers a longtime Reaganite.

He has run the GOP's philosophical gamut, from Nelson Rockefeller to Reagan. Last week he became a campaign issue himself when it was revealed that he was paid to advise the Panamanian government (and met with Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega) during 1985 and 1986. He also worked for the apartheid government of South Africa in 1983, and his firm worked with the regime until early 1985.

Spencer seems blase' about the criticism. "Yes, it's true -- I have no particular ideology," he says with a shrug and a smile. "I have no argument with that."

And even his detractors find it hard to argue with his instincts.

He is credited with setting up a first meeting between the Bush campaign and the Reagan staff when communications had faltered and tensions were escalating over who should play what role in the campaign. ("You should have seen the way they were lined up on opposite sides of the table," he says of the ultimate meeting. "They looked like the Russians and the Americans.")

This summer, when Reagan was threatening for the second time to veto the 60-day plant closing notification bill, Spencer told Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein: "It's a {expletive} issue ... Get away from it." Reagan did not veto the final measure.

"He tells the Reagans straight, no-nonsense, how things are politically, from a non-Washington perspective," says Duberstein. "And they listen."

Michael Deaver, who has been both friend and adversary, calls Spencer "the quintessence of the political trouble-shooter." And the younger operatives seem taken by his style. Says Bush political director Rich Bond: "He comes to meetings smoking cigarettes, with no tie, drinking coffee and swearing ... And everyone hangs on every word."

"I keep asking him," says his Washington lobbying partner Bill Hecht, " 'How in the world did you get so smart? I mean, you were a coach and then the head of a recreation department. Just what made you so damn smart?!' "

Perhaps the answer may be found in some Spencer rules of the road.

Rule No. 1: Don't Take Yourself Too Seriously "I don't know that I am so smart -- but I'll tell you one thing: I won't live in this town so I don't play all the games they play in this town," Spencer is saying, as he lights up his fourth cigarette of the hour this Saturday morning.

Clearly, part of the Spencer myth flows from his seeming indifference to the seductions of the White House -- or any other government job for that matter. Despite his enormous clout with the Reagans -- he oftens spends the weekend with them at Camp David or flies to Santa Barbara for dinner at Nancy's invitation -- and the various job offers, his answer has always been the same.

He doesn't look like someone who follows the rules, either. He's got that puffed-face, well-lined look of someone who has gone through too many campaigns, mainlined too much caffeine and downed too many scotches. (He says he quit drinking for the most part several years ago because a newly developed allergy sent him to the emergency room.)

He's a far cry from the suited-up K Street types who, of late, have adorned presidential campaigns. In 1976, he startled Ford's slick team by showing up for his first day of work in a light blue polyester suit piped in purple. These days, he's shucked the polyester but appears at buttoned-down meetings in baggy pants and rolled-up sleeves, showing off his substantial tattoo, a memento from his Navy years. ("I'm half considering getting a tattoo now," says Bond, with a giggle.)

He also has a facial twitch that people say gets worse the closer he gets to Election Day. "That," says one longtime observer, "is the only way you know Stu is getting nervous."

He was born Stuart Murphy in Phoenix, and raised in California, the son, he says, of an "alkie" father who left when he was an infant. His mother remarried A. Kenneth Spencer, a dentist and prominent Republican activist who was one of the original "committee of 100" who supported Richard Nixon for Congress in 1946.

Unlike Quayle, Spencer enlisted in the Navy the day after he graduated from high school -- in 1944. He was 17. "We weren't like these yuppies," he says, clearly alluding to the flap over Quayle's Vietnam-era service in the Guard. "We wanted to go."

Scrubbing decks for a few years, he says, convinced him college was in the cards. He graduated from Los Angeles State with a degree in sociology. (Last year, Spencer was divorced from his wife of 37 years, Jo, a travel agent. They have two children, Karen, White House deputy assistant for intergovernmental affairs, and Steve, a restaurateur.)

Spencer was always interested in politics, but it wasn't until he decided he was a Republican that he started volunteering in local races. His first campaign: Gov. Earl Warren's 1950 reelection bid. Recalls Robert Finch, a former Los Angeles County party chairman, Nixon operative and California lieutenant governor, "I was sending him into state races long before he was getting paid to do it."

After a stint as recreation director for Alhambra, Calif. -- Spencer (with Bill Roberts) opened what would become one of the hottest, full-service consulting firms in California. For many years, his company offered media advising and polling as well as Spencer's expertise. Ten years ago, though, he decided he was more effective as a solo operator, and shed his overhead for a small office in Irvine, Calif. He is also a partner in the Washington lobbying firm of Hecht, Spencer & Associates.

"The problem was -- I had to hustle my butt off," says Spencer. "I was working for everyone who worked for me."

Rule No. 2: Get Even "The way the story goes," says Spencer, "is that in 1965 Reagan went to see Barry Goldwater in Phoenix and Goldwater told him, 'If you run for governor, {hire} those sunsuvbitches Spencer/Roberts ... After what they did to me.' " He lets out a throaty laugh.

Spencer's client, Rockefeller, had actually lost the very divisive 1964 California primary to Goldwater, but Spencer nevertheless beams at the memory. "We really roughed Goldwater up," he says. "We played on the idea you didn't want him near the button. We dug up the worst pictures we could find of him and ran with them. He looked like a wild man."

And so Spencer/Roberts was hired when Reagan's "kitchen cabinet" decided to run the Hollywood actor for governor in 1966, and hired again for the 1970 reprise. Shortly after, though, there was a falling out with the Reagan inner circle.

In retrospect, no one -- including Spencer -- can cite any one reason for the rift. But Lyn Nofziger, Deaver and Spencer all suggest it had to do with the normal friction that arises when the palace guard realizes it's won -- and hates the idea of sharing power with hired hands. "It was an immature attitude," says Spencer, who also believes the men around Reagan tried to hurt his business.

"I guess," says Deaver, "if someone had asked me if they should use Spencer, I might have said no. And that would hold a lot of weight coming from the governor's office. But I also had a healthy respect for Stu's ability to get even and I wasn't given to do any more than I had to ..."

Spencer got even in 1976, when he accepted Ford's invitation to run a primary campaign against Reagan. "People ask me, 'Why didn't you work for Reagan in 1976?' -- well, hell, I'd never been asked," he says. "Ford asked me."

"Oh, we knew -- it was Stu getting even," says Deaver.

Spencer insists he never held a grudge against Reagan personally. Still, war is war, and he happily told anyone who would listen that Reagan was "lazy."

"He knew exactly what would make Ronald Reagan blow, what would get to him," says Deaver. "And when he finally used it in '76 -- Reagan blew."

Political aide Charlie Black remembers the story this way: "Reagan was on his way to Ohio when we were alerted that a new Ford ad had surfaced which said: 'Governor Reagan couldn't start a war; President Reagan could.'

"I was in Ohio already and had the great job of meeting the plane and bringing the script on board to Reagan. He read it, and then hit his fist on the wall and said, 'Damn that Stu Spencer!' He just knew."

Rule No. 3: Psyche Out The Media No one is really sure who extended the first olive branch to Spencer, but everyone remembers his response: "Is it certain that Nancy wants me back?"

It was September 1980, and the Reagan campaign against Carter looked a little shaky after some misstatements by the candidate. The most serious occurred when Reagan erroneously told a crowd in Michigan that Carter was launching his campaign from the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.

Enter Spencer. Deaver assured him that, yes, Nancy was eager to have him back.

His first move, according to Lou Cannon's book "Reagan": Keep Reagan away from the press.

Spencer told the candidate he was not obligated to answer every question shouted at him -- and, just in case Reagan felt the tug, he kept him out of earshot of the press. He wanted a few weeks where the message could get out unadulterated by Reagan's tendency to ad-lib. Spencer's media strategy reportedly produced a more confident candidate.

On one occasion, when the traveling press started to complain midflight to Dulles, Spencer announced that there would be a press conference upon landing.

"They couldn't talk to their editors, they couldn't look at the wires, they couldn't prepare," he says, quite pleased with himself. "They were so goddamm mad at me. We had a great press conference -- I thought."

Eight years later, as Dan Quayle took to the road after the convention, some veteran reporters, kept at arm's length, recognized Spencer's style. While Spencer has always played a deft cat-and-mouse game with the media, he remains popular among the ranks of the national press corps. All three network anchors appeared on an elaborate video a friend made for Spencer's 60th birthday bash last year.

Spencer refuses, however, to take credit, or accept blame, for the press conference last month in Huntington, Ind., where a hostile exchange between Quayle and the national press corps was piped in to a pro-Quayle, antipress audience.

"Oh, that was an accident," he says, smiling like a 15-year-old who can't decide whether it's better to be clever -- or innocent. "It was Craig Fuller's. All Craig was trying to do -- and you're not going to get me to change my story -- was to help the press in the back so they could hear."

He smiles again and shakes his head.

"We're going to continue to pay the price for that. They'll get their shot."

Rule No. 4: Pragmatism Can Be an Ideology When Nancy Reagan's feuding with former White House chief of staff Don Regan reached its peak, it was Spencer she turned to for help. She didn't want a mediator; she wanted a hand pushing Regan out the door. Which may be why Spencer refers to himself a pragmatist -- and Regan calls him a "ruthless pragmatist."

Spencer says he had nothing personal against Regan, and insists he even tried to save his job. But Spencer's friends and foes seem to agree on one point about the eternal pragmatist: When it's time to cut your losses, Spencer is the first one on deck with a knife.

He will only concede he "made some moves" on Regan, which others describe as designing the strategy to convince a reluctant Reagan that it was in his interest to let his chief of staff go.

Did Spencer ever consider accepting Don Regan's offer to become White House chief of communications in order to salvage the situation? He laughs incredulously.

"Hell, if I had wanted a job, it would have been his job ... He was trying to cement himself. You know, {keep your enemies} so close to you they can't breathe. He would have died if I had taken it."

He says Regan was never right for the job. "Number one, he's stubborn, tends to be arrogant ... He has a Marine mentality. There's nothing wrong with those things, but they don't work in this business."

If disposing of Regan was high political pragmatism, Spencer's representation of Panama and South Africa seems to some the low end of politics -- even for a man who disavows ideology.

With regard to Panama and military strongman Noriega, Spencer insists that had he known then what he knows now, he would not have taken the business.

"I think {Noriega} is a terrible person. In hindsight, I realize Noriega was pulling everybody's chain."

The Panamanian government retained Hecht, Spencer & Associates for $25,000 a month in a effort to improve its world image. Spencer says he advised Noriega to " 'let the civilians run the government. When you become a real democracy down there, the world is going to view you in a different light.' Well, it became evident he didn't like that because we lost the contract."

He hedges a little on South Africa, which reportedly paid his firm $350,000 between 1983 and 1985.

South Africa, he says, hired him to study the political situation in Namibia, in particular the feasibility of implementing the U.N. resolution that requires South Africa to give up its 73-year control of the country and hold U.N.-supervised elections. Spencer's portion of the work ended Aug. 31, 1983, while the firm continued to represent the Botha government until March 1985.

Spencer says he made several trips to South Africa in 1983 and concluded that South Africa could not control the outcome of such an election. He also insists, "I don't believe in apartheid."

Still, he rationalizes. "It's fun. It's interesting. It's a new challenge.

"South Africa is a country in the world. It's an important part of the world for this country and they're not doing anything right, but they deserve some representation.

"It's true. I'm not a great ideologue ... You never get 100 percent, you know."

Rule No. 5: Never Leave a Paper Trail or Talk in Public Jim Baker, who first met Spencer when they were both with the Ford campaign (as did Bush pollster Robert Teeter), has told how Spencer mapped out the entire 1976 campaign strategy on the inside cover of a matchbook. "I don't believe in paper," says Spencer. "Paper always falls into the wrong hands."

Says Don Ringe, a media consultant and former Spencer employee: "If a candidate came in and said, 'I want an in-depth analysis of how you are going to structure this campaign from beginning to end,' Stu would look at the person, put his pen down and say: 'Then you got the wrong guy.' "

Besides, says Spencer, his most famous and most successful client to date never cared about a lick about paper. "I'll give you 100 bucks for every campaign plan Ronald Reagan ever read," he says.

Spencer also refuses to discuss strategy on planes or in restaurants. A favorite story:

"I was in Cleveland during the '84 campaign and went out to supper," he says. "The table behind me was a Mondale group and by the conversation, I could tell they were very into Ohio politics.

"I listened to every word and when I was leaving I went up to the table and said, 'That was one of the most informative conversations I have ever heard.' I left my card on the table and walked out' "

As he was pulling out of the parking lot, Spencer noticed one of the young men from the table chasing his car and yelling "Waaaiit."

The thought of stopping never occurred to him.

Rule No. 6: Every Election Is Different Here's how Spencer sees 1988:

"First you got to take Reagan and put him over here," he says, gesturing across the room. "He's a different pol -- like FDR. I'm not going to see another one in my lifetime. He's over here. Then there's all the rest of us ...

"One issue that is really lacking is 'commie bashing.' That was always our issue {but} Reagan took it away from us. He's Gorbachev's campaign manager ...

"Republicans have been in power for eight years. Things are relatively good in the country. We're at peace. The economy is going well. People should be happy. But we've also been in power for eight years. The American people have this thing about change. They like to keep everybody honest.

"So I'm a firm a believer that {even} with things as good as they are today -- particularly overseas -- it's not helping Bush. If there is a real threat overseas and George Bush was perceived as the person with the most experience, compared to a governor of Massachusetts, then it would play to his advantage."

So what is he saying? Is the Nov. 8 vote going to rest on who can prove he has vision, strength, smarts, world savvy?

Nope, says the man who prides himself on keeping his eye on the main chance.

"This election is going to get down to who makes the last mistake."