"I hate this place. I hate my job. I hate congressmen. I hate candidates."

This is what Ed Rollins says to himself as he goes to work these days. It's pretty much the same thing voters are telling pollsters about Washington, and Congress, and politicians in general. But it's a fairly startling statement to hear from a professional pol less than three weeks before an election. Especially from the only pol in America who is paid a quarter of a million dollars a year to elect as many members of Congress as he can.

Ah, but Edward J. Rollins's job is to elect Republicans to the House -- tough sledding in most years, tougher in an off-year election, and, at this nadir of taxpayer confidence, perhaps one of the toughest jobs in America.

Rollins, the seasoned political monomaniac hired a year and a half ago to revive the National Republican Congressional Committee, presides over the field where the past month's budget fury will play out politically. In the most immediate way, he is the man holding the bag for weeks of Republican turmoil and presidential inconsistency.

Rollins describes the fallout bluntly, the way he describes everything: "In the last three, four weeks," he says, "it's all fallen apart. ... It's the worst political climate I've ever seen."

Any smart politico low-balls his predictions a few weeks before a campaign, in hopes of framing his candidate's eventual performance -- whatever it is -- as resounding victory. But Rollins's language today goes beyond this game of expectations, into the realm of Republican apocalypse.

"I just see sort of a historical trend running in which we could have a real disaster on our hands," he says. Fund-raising, he says, "has come to a roaring halt."

Of the White House, he says, "They have not gotten very much out of this deal, and obviously have reinvigorated the Democrats, and obviously allowed them to have the upper hand. ...

"All of a sudden we're looking into an abyss."

If Rollins is uniquely situated to see the connection between events inside the Beltway and politics outside it, he is also an instructive figure now for another reason: With his blue-collar background, Reaganaut pedigree and tenuous relationship with George Bush's White House, he embodies the tensions that are pulling the GOP apart.

In the past 35 years Republicans have done so badly in House elections that there is not a member serving today who was ever part of a Republican majority. Although the Senate has changed hands three times since 1954, that was the last year Republicans controlled the House.

After two terms of Ronald Reagan, and George Bush's 40-state victory, Republicans dared hope they might seriously challenge Democratic dominance. They recruited Rollins, who twice served in the Reagan White house as political director and who managed the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1984, and agreed to pay him a million dollars for an ambitious four-year commitment to create a Republican majority in 1992.

Rollins, 47, appreciated the Reagan revolution as only a convert could. "I'm the typical Reagan Democrat," he says, placing himself among the traditionally Democratic voters, especially ethnics and blue-collars, who abandoned their party to answer Reagan's appeal. He is the son of an electrician -- and the grandson and the nephew and the cousin of electricians. "I was the first of any of my cousins or family to go to college," he says. For much of his childhood he lived in public housing in Vallejo, Calif., where his father worked at a federal shipyard.

John F. Kennedy was a household saint to the Irish Catholic Rollinses, and in 1972, when Rollins told his father on a visit home that he had changed his registration to Republican and gone to work for Nixon's reelection campaign, his father threw him out of the house. "Told me to get a real job," Rollins recalls.

His slow conversion to the GOP was in part a matter of opportunity, in part one of conviction. He began as a college intern in the office of the legendary Democrat Jesse Unruh, speaker of California's assembly, but then moved on wherever opportunity presented itself, working on the staffs of several GOP legislators. One of the most intriguing chapters of his career is a two-year stint, in 1969 and 1970, as assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at Washington University in St. Louis. There he ran a distinctly liberal program to expose freshmen, "kids who had come from all these lily-white schools all over the country," to the realities of black and urban life. The program incorporated black literature, health care delivery to the poor, the criminal justice system.

But the campus chaos of the late '60s was something of a conversion experience. "It made me a good conservative," Rollins says today. "I watched the faculties and the students who'd burned the buildings down go off and nominate McGovern, and I went off to California and got involved with Nixon."

Rollins came to Washington under Nixon and Gerald Ford to work as a congressional liaison in the Department of Transportation. But his passion is not for working in government; it is for working in politics, which he pursues with the pugilistic spirit of the successful amateur boxer he once was. "Certainly," he has said, "I think the world is made up of hitters and hittees."

Ed Rollins has his vanities. In any conversation he may remind you more than once that in 1984 he ran "the most successful presidential campaign in history." What he does not have is pretensions, and for this reason political reporters, condemned to feed on an endless diet of political platitude and sanctimony, love Ed Rollins.

It isn't just that he talks; lots of politicos talk, in complicated schemes of leak and innuendo, trial balloon and spin control. Rollins talks straight, saying the things that most pols think and few will say out loud, or without the cloak of anonymity. Friends love to tell the 1982 story of how, in his first month as White House political director in 1982, he dumped on the chances of a California Senate candidate named Maureen Reagan: She "has the highest negatives of any candidate I've seen." Why on earth would he talk down the president's daughter? Because a reporter asked him, and her prospects were lousy.

Only a month later, speaking to a class at Georgetown about the administration's hard-fought battle for congressional approval of a controversial aircraft sale to Saudi Arabia, he described how his office had won the vote of Iowa Republican Sen. Roger Jepsen: "We just beat his brains out." This is not quite the attitude White House staffers are supposed to project toward senators of their own party.

More recently, he incurred the wrath of the Bush presidential campaign by delivering one of the most negative early assessments of Dan Quayle's selection as vice president. At the party's New Orleans convention, which Bush aides were trying desperately to contain the fast-breaking damage, Rollins was fanning the flames by telling reporters that Quayle brought nothing to the ticket.

Rollins is, of course, not without guile; this is still politics. But if there is the normal element of self-promotion in his blunt dealings with reporters, there is also something more appealing: In a culture of sycophants, Ed Rollins appears to own himself. His compulsive truth-telling seems his way of guaranteeing that he will never be swept away by the intoxicants of power.

He speaks the standard mix of sports cliche and powertown jargon, in which "players" contend for control of "the game." He enjoys being a player, he says. But though he is well into it, he is never quite of it.

'Poor Ed' The most frequently heard comment from Republican politicos around town is: "Poor Ed."

First, in late June, the president abandoned his pledge -- so indelibly delivered as an invitation to read his lips -- to oppose new taxes, a move that advanced budget negotiations but that Rollins objected to vehemently: It left House candidates campaigning on the issue high and dry.

Then, when the bipartisan budget summit produced a compromise deficit-cutting package, House Republicans revolted -- against the bill's tax component, and against what they saw as the high-handed behavior of the White House. In the ensuing clashes the government ground to a halt two weekends ago, and then the president appeared to flip-flop again and again over what new taxes he might support. Finally, when House Democrats introduced a bill that would raise the top marginal tax rate for people earning over $200,000 a year, Bush's resistance enabled Democrats to tag him and his party as favoring the rich.

Rollins's counterparts on the Democratic side unveiled a TV commercial associating the GOP with limousines and ritzy dinner parties. "In the '80s," it charged, "tax breaks for the rich drove up the deficit while middle-income working families got squeezed. Now the bill's come due, and the president's willing to shut down our government to push through a tax plan that benefits people over $200,000 a year, a plan that hurts seniors and families."

On the Hill last week, House Democrats' glee over the gathering momentum of their "fairness" pitch was palpable. Democrats had tried on and off for a decade, in vain, to exploit the issue. It never worked against Ronald Reagan, but polls showed that it was taking hold in the public imagination as a true portrait of George Bush.

"I've sat here for a month and watched the Democrats just do the most effective politics possible," says Rollins. "They have basically polarized the electorate, they have convinced the vast majority of Americans that Republicans only care about the rich, and they've done that very effectively. It was a game plan, and we have just fallen into their trap."

Originally, the GOP had banked on being able this fall to invite the American people to throw the bums out. The NRCC worked hard to publicize the ethics scandals that plagued House Democrats early in the 101st Congress -- the resignations of Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and of Whip Tony Coelho from California. "This president, I felt, was uniquely positioned, as the American electorate lost faith in the institution of Congress ... {to} go out and make the case that 'divided government does not work, and I need help.' "

Not only has the party thrown away that advantage, Rollins now believes; it has turned the pistol on itself. "You may have an anti-incumbent mood out there," he says, "but it's being shifted to be an anti-Republican incumbent mood. They don't like the institution, but my vulnerable people are probably going to pay the price."

At the arcane level of race-by-race analysis, predictions are all over the map: The rare congressional elections that respond to nationwide trends -- the post-Watergate election of 1974 is the best example -- are the least predictable. Some analysts believe the GOP's hemorrhage has stopped; others that the recession, combined with voter anxiety over the Persian Gulf and anti-Washington fever, could give the election some wildly unpredictable bounces.

"Six months ago, I'd have told you that in my 30 years in and around politics, this was the most unpredictable political environment I've ever been in," says Rollins. "I would say today that in my 30 years in politics -- and this includes Watergate, this includes the '82 cycle -- this is the most angry and disillusioned electorate I've ever had to deal with."

Inside the Beltway, Republican anger at the White House continues. "We've been waiting for years for realignment," says one GOP operative. "Unfortunately, George Bush's realignment means it's going to be the Democrats in the majority for the next decade. ... The White House is booting away the entire legacy of Ronald Reagan."

Rollins doesn't go this far. But he has never been a Bush man -- he chaired Jack Kemp's abortive primary run for the presidency in 1988, and was more or less locked out of the Bush campaign in the general election by his own frankness and by his long-running rivalry with Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater.

And today, while Rollins does not commit the cardinal sin of criticizing the president personally, he has a withering scorn for the political acumen of George Bush's staff. "They just weren't sensitive to all that's going on, and they're still not sensitive to it," he says, reserving special ire for Chief of Staff John Sununu and Budget Director Richard Darman. "Fortunately for Darman, Sununu has been more abrasive," says Rollins. "It would be a close vote as to who is less liked up here."

At a more mechanical level, he believes, the White House staff has been lackadaisical. "There has to be a total change of operation," he concludes.

Edward M. Rogers, who now holds Rollins's old job as White House political director, says: "Ed has made some comments that I wish he would've worded different. But then again, everybody has said some things I wish they would have worded differently, and on balance, Ed does a great job for the president and the Republican Party. I don't have any problems with Ed. We don't have any problems with Ed."

Keeping Losses Down Rollins is asked whether the GOP's internecine warfare of the past months is a sign that he has seen the historic moment of Republican potential come and go. "Privately, I've had those thoughts," he acknowledges.

He talks dispiritedly about possibly leaving the job after Nov. 6 -- two years before his commitment ends, two years before redistricting and scheduled retirements will open 70 or 80 seats, giving the GOP its one real shot at reversing at least some of its decline in Congress. "Either I have to take a long, long break after this and get my head back on track, or find other employment."

"I thought I could make a difference," he says. "And now I find events just sort of overtaking me. And it's kind of like, 'Did I spend a year and a half of my life in vain?'"

At this point, of course, he could be suspected of simply shoring up his alibi. Howard Schloss, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says, "What Ed Rollins is now trying to do is make the president the scapegoat for any Republican losses."

But Rollins's friends think such an accounting is only fair. "It's kind of like an act of God that something came along and skewed the entire election process," says Lyn Nofziger, who preceded Rollins as White House political director under Reagan. "Before, if he got out of there losing four or five seats, maybe some people would have pointed a finger at him, but he basically would have done a good job. Now, if he loses 15 seats, nobody can point a finger at him."

Rollins sets a mildly more ambitious goal: to keep his losses in single digits. For the future, he talks about starting a family with his wife of four years, ABC Vice President Sherrie Rollins. (This is his second marriage. Of his first, early one he says, "Unfortunately, I married a very nice girl who didn't like politics, and it lasted less than a year.") He talks about going off to his retreat in Front Royal, Va. "I keep saying I'm going to get a little bar down there and not let anybody in who wants to talk politics."

Friends are universally skeptical that Ed Rollins can ever walk away from "the game."

But Rollins would like you to know that telling the truth is a wearying job.

"I've spent 10 years in this town telling people 'this is what's going to happen,' and it ends up happening. I'm not the smartest person in the world, I've just lived through a lot, and there are certain patterns that occur."

"I have to tell you, it's awful to always be right."