The woman from Sen. Rick Santorum's office stretches her arms to the side and throws her blond hair back -- inspired by the deejay. The air in the club is heavy with sweat and beer and midsummer heat. A mix of music from the '80s and more recently churns out of the speakers. Between chugs of beer or sips of mixed drinks the dance floor fills with an under-30 crowd. Bodies relax to the beat, give in to the music. The joint is sprinkled with young Republicans letting loose out on the town.

Out back Ric Grenell, 28, a press secretary for Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), is surrounded by a pack of tall coeds celebrating a birthday. A cool blonde, about six feet in her sandals, picks a fight with him about politics, but he takes it in stride. One woman announces herself as a Republican, sips her bottle of Bud Light and lights a cigarette. The place is packed and bodies press up against each other; strangers share the same space. She gives him her number.

Earlier on this Friday night, like many others, Hill staffers from the Southern states gathered across the street from Ford's Theatre at the Dixie Grill for a little taste of home. The place is sticky and dark with pool tables and a bar upstairs from the restaurant. The pitchers of beer flow, mostly the cheap stuff, and they sit around and talk politics, take a pulse on who's hitting on whom, plan for the evening ahead.

Later, at Club Heaven in Adams-Morgan, Grenell sets down his beer. He's ready to dance. Taking a friend in tow, he moves across the dance floor twisting and turning, spinning to the beat. He knows what he is doing. But he's not out here looking for a date. Between working out twice a day, playing softball with Hill friends and just getting through each day's work, Grenell is not really in the market for a relationship.

"I have no time," he says later in his apartment surrounded by photos of family and friends. "It wouldn't be fair."

It seems to him at times that the last chance he had to kick back and relax came at the exact moment his future filled up indefinitely. As Grenell watched the election results scroll across the TV screen Nov. 4, he felt euphoric. He was certain he was witnessing a monumental political moment. At a tony Georgetown party stuffed with young, cigar-smoking Republicans and littered with champagne flutes, Grenell was in his element.

"Everyone around me had chills," he explains. "It was such a validation of It's great to be a Republican.' "

Young Republicans on the Hill today say this: Never before in their lives had they worked as hard as they did during the first 100 days of the 104th Congress. It seems possible they never will again. But they wear their exhaustion as a badge of honor.

"All the ideas we'd been talking about we had to act on now," says Grenell. When he talks about "we," he means hard-core, "in your face" Republicans. "I didn't know if they would end up working, but I felt everyone wanted to do the right thing." Plotting the Moves

Ric Grenell was 8 when his father boosted him up high in the voting booth to pull the lever for Gerald Ford. This is his earliest political memory. He can't say he was already a Republican by conviction, but he did know two important facts: Gerald Ford was from his home town of Grand Rapids, Mich., and the booth looked like the one worked by the man behind the curtain in "The Wizard of Oz."

Two decades later Grenell is the man behind the scenes, a foot soldier for the Republican vision of America. As press secretary for South Carolina freshman Sanford, Grenell has made it to that great playground of the politically oriented, Capitol Hill. Grenell is young, idealistic, passionate and toiling away to take advantage of the first Republican-controlled Congress in more than four decades. There are hundreds just like him. He is who you think he is. Then again, he isn't.

Grenell proved he was plugged in when he landed a spot on Newt Gingrich's transitional team. Beyond busy, he had no life. But it was a welcome relief from the previous two years looking in on the movers and shakers. From the low of Clinton's election to the high of last November's takeover of Congress, the ride had been, if not long, then certainly strange.

Grenell was plucked from obscurity in 1992 when a mentor and former co-worker at the American Arbitration Association in Charlotte brought him to Washington to work as a paid staffer on the Bush-Quayle campaign. In Charlotte, Grenell had worked for reform of the legal system. In Washington, he took on the future of the country. Finally -- in the heat of a presidential campaign -- he was in the fray, mixing it up with the big shots. Grenell came to Washington eager to be a part of history. But in 1992, history took a bounce that astonished him. Bush lost.

"I don't even like it when people say Clinton won. A majority of the people did not vote for him," says Grenell, the memory still painful three years later. "Not only had my candidate lost, but I also lost my job. I felt that we had truly let President Bush down and I was depressed."

But it seems now to Grenell that 1992 was an inexplicable blip, a moment of anger at Washington that took down the wrong man. Although he was upset at the turn of events, to make it so close to real power and then have it snatched out of his hands. . . . He bided his time. In the traditional holding pattern of the politically connected but out-of-power, Grenell went to work for the National Republican Campaign Committee. He learned about dealing with the media and was loaned out to some Midwestern campaigns. He took a paid job on the campaign of Ken Sikkema, floor leader for the Michigan House of Representatives. He considered bagging politics for good when that bid for office fell just short. He actually took to his bed, he was so distraught. His parents were concerned.

Grenell pulled through. Returning to Washington, he served as press secretary for Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and waited for the next election. What Would Mom Do?

Ric Grenell is the youngest of four children, three boys and a girl, who grew up in a Christian home. His parents worked as missionaries for the Church of God. Part of what's wrong with America, says Grenell, is that people don't care about what their mothers think -- a yardstick against which he measures all of his moves. He describes himself as a "mama's boy" -- which may explain his affinity for strong women. His absolute favorite is morning talk show host and television personality Kathie Lee Gifford. He'd give anything to meet her. He's also a fan of Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) and -- surprise -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, both of whom he has met. Grenell considers Arianna Huffington -- wife of failed California senatorial candidate and multimillionaire Michael Huffington -- a personal friend and mentor. "I love that woman," says Grenell of his occasional dinner and movie partner.

Grenell comes from the blue-eyed, blond-haired, hard-working, all-American family. Picture perfect. When he was growing up in Michigan, everyone he knew was just like him. He hated it.

"I don't like being around preppy Republicans all the time," he says as his 5-month-old half-Labrador, half-Dalmatian puppy from the pound tows him through the Logan Circle neighborhood where he lives. The area teeters on the edge of safety and presentability. Two doors down from Grenell's ramshackle three-flat building is a wall painted with gang symbols. Known for a long time as "Hooker Heaven," this is not a place where you'd expect to find a self-confessed devotee of "The Official Preppy Handbook" -- the book that is his aesthetic guide to life. He actually owns a signet ring and wears it every day because the handbook says you should. "Exactly," he says with a smile. "That's me."

Laurie Blackford, a producer of Chris Matthews's show on America's Talking, the all-talk cable network, describes Grenell as "the most perfect-looking person -- perfectly pressed and dressed." She met him on the Bush-Quayle reelection campaign and says one particular moment sticks in her head: "One of our staff people came in and had on a flowery dress and red shoes and Ric looked at her and said, Didn't your mother ever tell you only whores and very small children wear red shoes?' "

"You know that was a joke," says Grenell, chuckling when asked about his candor. "But come on. Red shoes?"

His choice of apartment is instructive because it illustrates his sense of how things should be, from the personal to political.

He moved to Logan Circle in 1992 from Charlotte to be near friends from William and Mary, where he attended graduate school. He saw his Washington location as a chance to break from his past, to escape the sameness of Evangel College, the small Missouri Christian school where he did his undergraduate work, and the other middle-class places he had called home. But it runs deeper than that.

Grenell says Republicanism is no good if people subscribe to only half of the equation. The flip side to fiscal conservatism is private generosity. The Thousand Points of Light that President Bush called for is no small matter to him. He is a firm believer in Arianna Huffington's Center for Effective Compassion, a nascent group that hopes to point volunteers in the direction of charities it believes really work.

"Democrats believe government programs are the answer. Taxes get people off the hook and make them believe they've already made their contribution. A check won't solve the problems of a welfare mother," says Grenell.

To that end he has helped two neighbors get jobs, one as a courier and the other at the YMCA. He has hired a neighborhood boy to walk his dog, Foster.

The point, for Grenell, is to find out about people not like himself, to expand his scope. He's close to several Democrats on the Hill, and he's open to listening to their positions on things. But ultimately it's more about observation than participation. He rarely changes his mind.

"I have a close friend who works for Skaggs {Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.)} who has been with us when we're sitting around talking about issues. She told me, I wish I could have discussions like this with Democratic colleagues,' " recounts Grenell. "We talk about solutions in the Republican Party. That is the difference."

On the forest green wall of his living room, up the lopsided half stairs in the hall, hangs a picture of Robert Kennedy in the midst of Reagan and Bush memorabilia. It sticks out.

"I think RFK was confused about his party orientation," says Grenell, only half-joking. "I really admire him. He stood for what I believe in. In his South African speech in 1966 he talks about each person being a ripple that becomes a wave. Maybe I can be a ripple for this neighborhood." United They Stand

Everything about the Judiciary Committee room is oversize. The heavy wooden doors stretch high to the ceiling, dwarfing even the tallest man. The drapes are voluminous, the tables perhaps stolen from the Giant's house in "Jack and the Beanstalk." In this setting gather the Republican press secretaries -- young, eager, fresh-faced -- almost at child's play in the massive grandeur of these hallowed halls.

They are gathered to hear an outline of the Waco hearings so they know what to expect and when. They're being spun by the Judiciary Committee staff so their spinning will be in concert with their colleagues. In plain English, this means they all gather to check out their strategy on a position and to find out what areas the powers-that-be want emphasized or avoided. The women -- who make up a substantial section of the audience -- and men are all well-dressed and scrubbed, the cuffs on the men's slacks the right length, the women with just the right amount of makeup and discreet jewelry.

The press secretaries all have their own little fiefdoms to work in, putting out their member's message, controlling access to the media, advising their members on image and policy. It is heady work. Despite differences in opinion, they are passionate about what the Republicans have tried to accomplish -- balancing the budget, speaking out against the disintegration of the American family.

Around the room the faces are overwhelmingly youthful, yet gold bands ring the fingers of quite a few. They jostle and introduce each other, say hello to old friends, update on current issues.

"We're going to take down affirmative action," announces Chris McGowen, a young black staffer from Rep. J.C. Watts's (R-Okla.) office, as he slides into his seat.

"Aren't you guys going to take a beating?" says Grenell.

"You bet," says McGowen, who works for one of the two black Republicans in the House of Representatives.

They all say Newt Gingrich is their leader. He is, after all, the speaker of the House. But it's not that simple: They scoff at the idea of a lockstep army of conservatives seizing control and beating their agenda into law.

"The speaker is a professor. An idea man," explains Grenell. "He has a new idea every other minute. If you don't like the one he has now, wait a day. You jump on to the ones you like."

In the cafeteria at the Longworth House Office Building, the decor is from the pages of a children's story, with bulbous green lamps hanging like upside-down trees and red gingham trimming the tables. It is almost possible to envision the speaker as Willy Wonka, Roald Dahl's eccentric candy inventor, bestowing the golden tickets to a selected few youngsters.

But fairy tales are seldom as simple or innocent as they seem. For those young Republicans who have migrated from small towns and far-flung cities to live in their nation's capital, magic lives on the Hill.

"Tremendous things are in store for you!" Willy Wonka promised. GOP and Proud of It

James Wilson, 24, sits in the cubicle next to Grenell sifting through congressional bills, boxed in by a stack of reading material piled haphazardly high. Wilson, a legislative aide for Sanford and a native South Carolinian, is earnest and dedicated. He's the guy in the office who insists that everyone else recycle. He is lanky and boyishly handsome, taller than you expect when he stands up, hesitant in his manner in a way reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

He pages through an appropriations bill, and his blood pressure rises.

"This is ridiculous," he mutters, mostly to himself. "Look at this."

He is pointing to an item that would give several hundred thousand dollars to build roads for loggers. "But aren't these people making money on their logging business? Why should the federal government finance them?"

These questions make Wilson crazy. And angry. He is not alone.

"I think a lot of young people are fiscal conservatives," explains Jennifer Bogart, 28, who is the national committeewoman for the District of Columbia Young Republicans, a group for people 42 and younger interested in working for the party. "I think there is tremendous fear about our economic future. I think most of us think government is too big and ineffective.

"Now, it is much more popular to say you are a Republican," says Bogart.

Although many young Republicans are raised in that tradition, quite a few find their way on their own. Greg St. Clair, the 29-year-old press secretary for Rep. Camp, says his Ann Arbor, Mich.-based family doesn't understand his conservative streak.

"I remember in 1972 I played Dick Nixon in a class election, and I came home all excited and told my mom, Mom, Mom, I played Richard Nixon and I won!' and her face just fell and she was like Greg, why were you Richard Nixon?' "

For the most part, though, he doesn't worry that he's taken a right turn from the rest of his clan.

"Yeah, they wonder why I'm a Republican. But really -- I don't understand why they aren't conservatives," says St. Clair.

It burns up these young Republicans when people talk about the 1992 Republican National Convention being full of narrow-minded views and hate. They say the "big tent" -- the idea touted by the Republican party that everyone was welcome under its canopy -- is a reality.

"The Democrats didn't have any pro-life speakers. They stopped them from talking. We had everyone, from far-right to pro-choice. It's ludicrous to say the Republicans were intolerant, were filled with hate," says Grenell.

Winston Churchill once remarked, "Anybody who isn't a liberal at 20 has no heart. Anybody who is still a liberal at 40 has no brain." Which brings up the question: Are these young Republicans old before their time?

"I think what you are supposed to be when you are young is idealistic and passionate," says Grenell. "Some people choose to be passionate about themselves, wanting to have sex all the time or achieve a high all the time. I'm passionate about politics." Move On or Move Over

Grenell has nothing but disdain for the burnouts and hangers-on, the people who trudge to work on the Hill day after day as though it were any old job in any old place and not the center of the U.S. government. There is no room for the cynical, for those who believe change is impossible. They should get out.

He also dislikes those who can't handle the hard questions -- cuts in the budget, abortion. If you won't toe the line, Grenell has a handy label for you. "Squish," he says of Christine Todd Whitman, the pro-choice Republican governor of New Jersey. This is not a compliment.

To that end he is a partisan. A true believer. He likes working for Sanford because Sanford is a true-blue member of a freshman class elected under the mantle of changing the arrogance of Congress. There is, perhaps, nothing that angers Grenell more than that smug, isolated sense that seems endemic to career politicians. On the famed trolley that taxis 655 feet from the Rayburn House Office Building to the Capitol, he sneers. The trolley was built to ensure that representatives could make it from their offices to the House floor in time to cast a vote.

"Isn't this ridiculous?" he asks. "They have plenty of time to get to a vote."

He looks around and sees no members of Congress near the train, so he boards a car clearly marked "For Members Only." Then looks at the train operator, just daring him to say something.

"There's no one around. There's no vote in progress. I think it's the height of arrogance to reserve these cars for members only. You start to buy into being different when everyone is catering to you. Announcing you as you enter the room. It can be hard to remember why you are here."

Grenell doesn't have that problem. He knows why he runs himself ragged. He started with political aspirations of his own, but after seeing the underbelly of political life, the hard work and pressure, he's no longer sure. That's not to say he is not ambitious. White House press secretary sounds appealing. He's sure more chances lie ahead. Conservatism is the wave of the future, he says. On the phone with a good friend who is a Democrat, he jokes about the upcoming election and another friend's job in the Clinton administration.

"You tell her to keep her White House job for now, because in another year she's not going to have it," he says into the receiver. "Start practicing saying first lady Elizabeth Dole.' "

Ric Grenell breaks into a brilliant smile. There is no place like here, the Capital City. The Republicans are in control, and he is at home. CAPTION: Conservatism is the wave of the future, says energetic GOP press aide Ric Grenell, 28, and he intends to ride its crest and, perhaps, make a splash of his own. CAPTION: "I think what you are supposed to be when you are young is idealistic and passionate," says Ric Granett, 28, press secretary to Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) ". . .I'm passionate about politics."