PHILADELPHIA -- Back then he was Darlin' Arlen, the crime-busting district attorney and mayoral hopeful. He was so clean and relentless, so "brilliant," the newspapers said, that the corrupt and contented Democratic machine at City Hall lived in peril.

At one point in that 1967 race, which Arlen Specter lost by a hair, the Democratic machine retaliated by floating a rumor that Specter, then 37, had taken ill on a city street corner and had died. There were reports of jubilation in City Hall until he was traced -- alive -- to a meeting in a downtown office.

"If Mark Twain hadn't said it first, I would have said that rumors of my death are greatly premature," Specter said recently.

Twenty-five years later, Specter's image has gone from Darlin' Arlen to Snarlin' Arlen. The mere mention of his name is now the most reliable hiss-and-boo line at women's and Democratic gatherings, his job performance rating has taken a slide here since October, and he faces in Democrat Lynn Yeakel an unsullied, anti-Establishment candidate with a star quality that was his in the 1960s.

But Twain could still have it right. For if Yeakel is one of the country's best examples of an irresistible force fueled by the angry electorate, Specter may yet be the immovable object.

Damaged though he is by his role as chief interrogator of Anita Hill, Specter, 62, is making a strong case to voters. He is an Olympic-quality political tactician with a well-oiled incumbency machine in even the most far-flung Pennsylvania towns. He travels indefatigably to all of the state's 67 counties, often starring before television cameras as the local folks' heavyweight in Washington, at times prompting local congressmen to accuse him of stealing credit for their own projects.

In a year of anti-incumbent rage, he is running as an outsider on the inside, a contrarian who genuinely enjoys offending the Washington establishment to do Pennsylvania's bidding. He is suing the Navy -- even argued the case himself in court -- to frustrate the Pentagon's efforts to shut the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, source of 47,000 jobs. In early summer, he brought George Bush to the state's pastoral conservative heartland to help him raise an estimated $800,000, and has spent much of the campaign since boasting of his distance from the president.

He struts his incumbency like a bodybuilder displaying his biceps. When the Department of Veterans Affairs threatened last year to shut a surgery wing of a Lebanon, Pa., hospital, Specter swooped into central Pennsylvania with leaders of every state veterans group and declared before television cameras from three cities that he would use his power as senior Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee to twist the arm of VA Secretary Edward Derwinski.

Asked if Derwinski "owe{s} you one," Specter gloated, street-tough style: "More than one."

He has a strong record on women's rights, civil rights and Israel as well as a history of squeezing blood out of the federal turnip in ways that impress even Democrats. "I do not like him as a person, I do not like what he did to Anita Hill," said a suburban Philadelphia woman who is Jewish and a Democrat. "But I know what he does for Israel, and I am not willing to sacrifice him."

While his operatives have spent the summer roughing up Yeakel among black and Jewish voters, potential soft spots in the state's large Democratic base, Specter has stayed mostly above the fray. His television ads -- on the air unusually early -- feature Pennsylvanians talking about him securing an oxygen machine for a veteran in the town of Trafford, supporting import quotas to protect steel jobs, advocating toxic-waste cleanup in the town of Throop. At the end, these words appear: "The things you care about are the very things he's fighting for."

Arlen's Ornery State

A clue to understanding Specter, particularly amid the backlash at his questioning of Hill, is that unlike many politicians, his popularity has never mattered much to him -- nor has it had much to do with his political survival.

"He doesn't suffer from a desperate desire to be popular," said Thacher Longstreth, a Republican city council member whose unsuccessful 1971 mayoral campaign was managed by Specter. "He suffers from a desperate desire to be elected."

When, after his 1967 mayoral loss, a friend suggested that Specter needed more warmth, he is said to have barked back: "Okay, I'll get some." In 1978 the Philadelphia Daily News called him "basically a cold fish."

Asked how it feels to be despised by legions of women for his questioning of Hill, Specter gave what appeared to be an emotionally honest response: "I think I've succeeded in not letting it bother me."

Political observers here routinely are snarly toward Specter, even when praising him. Early this year, the Pennsylvania Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter, favorably compared Specter's political skills with those of former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh under the headline: "Arlen Specter: Not Just Another Dick."

But Specter represents a state as ornery as he is. Pennsylvania -- a sprawling hodgepodge of farms, factories, high tech, urban decay and suburban sprawl -- knows no loyalty, voting Republican half the time and Democratic the other half in the last eight contests for president and governor.

"Arlen Specter is not the kind of candidate who's ever won by making people feel happy, by appealing to the good feelings of the electorate as a whole," said David Buffington, the Report's editor. "He's a coalition builder. He chips away and chips away and chips away until he's there."

Specter learned how to win the hard way. Before his election to the Senate in 1980, he lost three races in a row -- losing a third term as district attorney in 1973 and statewide primaries for senator in 1976 and governor in 1978. The losses only served to make him more determined. Asked in 1980 whether he, a liberal Republican, had ideological differences with his opponent, a conservative Democrat, he answered: "Yes, I'm campaigning harder than he is."

"Specter never loses," said former state Republican strategist Rick Robb. "He just runs out of time."

The question posed by the Yeakel candidacy is whether time has in fact run out on Specter. Pennsylvanians, like the rest of Americans, believe overwhelmingly that their country is on the wrong track. Specter's tenure in Washington has coincided with the Reagan-Bush years. Will it matter to voters that he made a broken system work better for them than it might have? Or will they seek a vehicle for junking the system altogether?

Moreover, being an outsider on the inside is a hard act to sustain. Occasionally one is called upon to do inside jobs. This was the case last fall when the Senate Republican leadership asked Specter to interrogate Hill.

"He was for the Equal Rights Amendment, pro-choice and a former prosecutor who could certainly do the job and, in my mind, draw less criticism than the rest of us," said his committee colleague, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "I told him it was going to be a very tough job and he would be criticized. And he said, 'That's the way life is.' "

Specter freely admits that he never expected life to be quite like this. He is now viewed by many former female supporters as a man who sold them out for political advantage. He has become an object of national female scorn, typed as a white male brute for such remarks as: "This is not too bad -- 'women's large breasts' -- that's a word we use all the time."

Ellen Malcolm, president of the Democratic women's fund-raising network Emily's List, barely mentioned his name during a recent Washington speech to several hundred contributors before she was drowned out by boos. "I can't thank you enough," she said. "Everywhere I go in this country I say that and they all boo and hiss."

Yeakel was next at the microphone, and she drew cheers and guffaws when she said: "I feel extremely lucky and privileged to be in the right place at the right time, to have the perfect opponent -- absolutely perfect. ... I have yet to find one person anywhere in the United States who likes Arlen Specter."

Flexing Incumbent Muscle

Such words as "like" or "dislike" may not even be in the Specter lexicon. Specter approaches his problems with the methodical resolve of a dogged lawyer. Day and night, he makes his case. Take it or leave it.

"I'm going retail on Anita Hill," Specter said. "I'm going out to meet people in small groups. I'm taking it very seriously. I'm not letting any event go by."

He spoke in an interview of "a real learning experience, a growing experience" from the reactions to the hearings, but he also asserted, "I have found people just very pleased with what I did, both men and women, the overwhelming majority was pleased."

A subsidiary of his campaign organization, Women for Arlen Specter, has been formed to recruit women -- particularly in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs, always a Specter heartland -- to come to town meetings to hear him detail his record on women's issues apart from Anita Hill. His wife, Joan, a Philadelphia city council member and women's-rights advocate, is running interference among "highly educated women," he said.

At one recent session, in an airy exhibition hall downtown, he was introduced to a friendly audience of about 100 women by supporter Betsy Cohen, who said, "By his legislative record, not by his genetic record, we should all feel empowered."

Specter spoke in a gentle, almost penitent voice as he walked the room, microphone in hand, fielding questions. But he was not apologetic. "Whatever anyone may think, no one can deny my record on women's issues is as good as anyone's in the Congress," he said.

Then, the case. Specter reminded them he supports unfettered abortion rights: "If you have to have government tell a family what to do, you don't have a family." He reminded them he fought on the Appropriations Committee for a federal agency dedicated to women's health care, on the Judiciary Committee for sanctions against child pornography. He was a pivotal strategist for the 1991 Civil Rights Act and the Kennedy-Specter Fair Housing amendments, both with special protections for women. For all this, he told them, he has won the support of a preeminent Pennsylvania feminist, Morgan Plant, a longtime executive of Planned Parenthood.

He reminded them of his key role in sinking the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, who, had he been confirmed, likely would have cast the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. He said he did not consider Clarence Thomas the best available nominee but considered him qualified.

He flexed his incumbency. He pointed out that Philadelphia and Pittsburgh now have federally funded prenatal-care centers for pregnant teenagers -- "It didn't happen by coincidence, it happened because of my {position} on the Appropriations Committee." He mentioned a $300,000 grant he recently secured to prosecute domestic violence cases in Philadelphia. He recalled a conversation with Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, a Democrat, who wanted more money for troubled youths in the wake of the Los Angeles riots: "He said to me, 'Who is on the relevant committee?' and I said, 'Well, Ed, I am.' "

"There's some more {money} there," Specter said, pausing long enough to get everyone's attention. "Might have to get reelected to get it, but there's more."

Principled Practicality

It is ironic that Specter prides himself on being an outsider, because he so relishes incumbency that he seems born for it. In an interview in his Capitol hideaway office, as aides brought in sandwiches and coffee, he made a point of saying he had been on four plane rides with President Bush since April. He told of chairing a hearing when an aide burst in with word that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had caved in on the V-22 Osprey, a military aircraft being developed partly in Pennsylvania that Cheney had wanted to ax.

Cheney called twice during the interview, irked at Specter for single-handedly blocking the confirmation of two mid-level Navy nominees. Specter was holding up the nominations -- a senatorial privilege -- because, he said, Cheney and the Navy were giving him a runaround on the Philadelphia naval yard. Cheney agreed to arrange meetings for Specter with top Pentagon brass to discuss the yard's future, and Specter released the nominations with a phone call.

Specter was raised in a vastly different world than this one. He was born in Kansas in the Depression to a Russian Jewish immigrant and wounded veteran of World War I who scraped out a living as a peddler and junk dealer, raising four children and often invoking the American dream.

While on the surface Specter and Yeakel have little in common, they are alike in that both were moved to enter politics by admiration for their fathers: in Yeakel's case, for Porter Hardy Jr., an 11-term Democratic congressman who told her that the purpose of power was to help those who didn't have it; in Specter's case, for Harry Specter, one who didn't have it.

Specter often tells of a veterans' bonus that Harry Specter needed to feed his family during the Depression but never received. He was only 2 or 3 at the time, he says, but he remembers his father's outrage. He says he has been "on my way to Washington ever since to get my father's bonus."

"It was a dream, a child's fantasy, to go to Washington for this powerful father," Specter said.

Harry Specter was a Democrat. His youngest son was too, shaped significantly by his father's values and by being Jewish at a time when most Philadelphia law firms wanted nothing to do with Jewish lawyers -- a degree from Yale Law School notwithstanding.

Specter became a Republican at age 34. He describes that basic political choice as one of tactics rather than principle. He said he did it because he believed Philadelphia needed two viable parties, not out of fealty to GOP values. He also did it to get elected. The Democratic chairman had turned him down when, as a celebrated young prosecutor, Specter said he wanted to run for district attorney. The response, as he recalls it, was: "We don't want a young Tom Dewey."

The GOP offered him the nomination without strings and he took it, as only a contrarian could: He didn't change his registration until after he won.

In Specter's political life, principle and tactics have been competing themes ever since. He hired unprecedented numbers of women and blacks to be assistant district attorneys. One of them, the current district attorney, Lynne Abraham, a Democrat, said all her interviews with law firms at the time went like this: "How do we know you won't get pregnant?" She went on: "Arlen, to his credit, didn't ask any of that dumb stuff. He didn't want to know anything except whether I would be a good trial lawyer, and he hired me."

Similarly, his Senate staffs regularly have more minorities in policy positions than almost all others. Margaret Morton, a black Democrat who served as an aide to Specter until 1990, said of his possible defeat, "I think it would be a loss not only for women but for other minorities."

Specter has taken stands on principle in the Bork nomination and in the 1991 Civil Rights Act, in which he helped chart a strategy that led President Bush to sign the measure after vetoing it a year earlier. He also voted against President Reagan's choice of William Bradford Reynolds as assistant attorney general for civil rights when he faced the prospect of a potential primary challenge from the right (from Thornburgh, who ultimately begged off).

But he also is known for sitting on his hands on contentious bills, drawing attention to himself as he wrestles with indecision. He said in an interview that he actually does this on purpose because it gains him power, offering a version of Washington reality in which it can be expedient to make stands on principle, and principled to be expedient.

"Everyone wants you to jump on and sponsor a bill," he said. "That doesn't do anything. Legislation can only be enacted if the president signs it. It's like the civil rights bill, like unemployment compensation, like summer job training, like enterprise zones. You take a position and what does it mean? There are 40 or 45 senators who jump immediately to the right and 40 to 45 on the left and a few of us in the center, and we have to work it out. I find myself able to work things out if I keep my powder dry."

While Specter touts his independence from Republican White Houses, the degree of it appears to vary in direct correlation to political challenges at home. In 1986, when former congressman Robert Edgar, a liberal Democrat, tried to unseat him, he voted against President Reagan 65 percent of the time, a career high for him, according to Congressional Quarterly. Last year, when Specter's biggest threat appeared to be a conservative opponent in the 1992 Republican primary, he gave Bush 68 percent of his votes, although this still left him the fifth-least-loyal Republican senator.

Asked about this pattern, particularly about suggestions that he supported Thomas to pacify conservatives after his vote against Bork, Specter scoffed: "If Thomas had not been confirmed {because of Specter} I probably would have {won the primary} by 25 points instead of 30."

The former district attorney remains very much the prosecutor. He questioned Bork with courtroom intensity, as he did Anita Hill.

Specter relates often to his staff as a prosecutor. Sylvia Nolde, his appointments secretary, recalled that in her early days on his staff he asked for her position on an issue, and she said she wasn't familiar with it. "And he said, 'I cannot believe you sit here day after day and aren't aware of that issue and don't care enough to have a position on it.' And I had tears in my eyes," Nolde said. "But it never happened again, and I feel wonderful about that. He's taught me I have to be feisty, I have to be opinionated."

Specter campaigns with the same intensity. "In most campaigns, you have to push the candidate to do tough things," said a Republican who has worked often with Specter. "With Specter you have to restrain him."

This year Specter is for the most part restraining himself, again in the name of tactics, letting others do the prosecuting. He has told colleagues that he intends never to belittle Yeakel, lest he remind voters about Anita Hill. His operatives are nonetheless working to build a case that she suffers from blind spots as a result of a privileged upbringing and wealthy lifestyle -- a case that Yeakel's campaign has yet to discredit among some black and Jewish voters.

"She doesn't understand politics," said a Specter operative. "She thinks people who don't know her will take her at face value. They won't."

The Specter campaign prosecution team has documentary evidence of every Yeakel slip-up. It has a videotape of a press conference in Erie in which she stood in front of an empty department store and blamed its failure on the "Specter-Reagan-Bush" recession (the store actually closed when Jimmy Carter was president -- before Specter was elected). And it has a transcript of a speech in which she derided Specter for playing squash in the Senate gym (the Senate gym has no squash courts).

What remains unclear is whether these traditional political explosives will detonate with the usual force. There are land mines everywhere for a male incumbent in this year of women, outsiders and frustrated voters. For this reason, David Garth, Specter's longtime political strategist and media consultant, calls this race "one of the most fascinating I've seen in 30 years in the business. In my view, it's image against reality, but we're running against not just one image but a trend of images."

Just how fascinating can be seen in the disdain the Yeakel camp, composed mostly of political novices, has shown for the brand of politics that got Specter where he is. At one point, Specter's campaign challenged Yeakel to match Specter's withering itinerary when he first ran for the Senate in 1980; he visited all 67 counties in one election season. But Yeakel's press secretary, Cathy Ormerod, dismissed the campaign chestnut with a wave of Specter's press release. "This is garbage," she said. "They are trying to rattle us. We will not be rattled."

For now, the electorate appears evenly divided but impulsive in both directions. A recent statewide poll showed that Specter was rated excellent or very good at his job by 50 percent of the voters in October -- shortly after the Thomas-Hill hearings -- and by 37 percent in late June. It also showed an excitement about the potential of women candidates to address growing domestic ills. But Specter has made some significant inroads over the summer, by relentless working of virtually every key constituency, winning endorsements from influential labor unions and some black leaders.

The endorsements have come for reason: Specter, in the classic political sense, has delivered for Pennsylvania. He has mastered the issues crucial to the state, gained seniority on committees that determine their fate, become a skilled manipulator of the levers of power and shown a willingness to defy the president, Anita Hill notwithstanding. Given this and his undying passion for the game of politics, it would take a sea change in the electorate to beat him, not so much a rejection, but a negation, of Specter. But the rebellious mood in Pennsylvania and the nation could make that happen if Yeakel's campaign manages to mobilize it. An illustration:

Specter recently appeared at a Philadelphia area Boeing plant where he was applauded loudly by hundreds of employees packed into a parking lot under a blazing sun for his work as a battle-scarred victor in the fight to save funding for the V-22 Osprey. Many men and women there said they probably would vote for Specter as gratitude for their jobs, although most said they hadn't thought about the race. Two workers in T-shirts and jeans who were clapping louder than anyone had another view.

Richard Gallo, with 18 years at Boeing, said he feels that he owes Specter his job. But as for the election, Gallo said, "I like the woman right now." Joe Nagle, his co-worker, said he felt the same.

"It's his job to protect our jobs. It's what he's supposed to do," said Gallo. "If she gets elected, she'll work for us too."

Gallo and Nagle said that for most of their years at Boeing, they have been uncertain of their futures because of precarious defense funding.

"We're just family men, just basic people," said Gallo. "You hope you have a job, enough money to put food on the table. She seems to understand. I'm sure Specter has compassion too, but you get gut feelings, gut reactions. It's nothing really intellectual. It's just the way she comes across -- not like a politician. She's just more real."