Giant-killer Gerry Spence has been bested by Bill Clinton.

It happened the night before at the president's birthday party, says the famed trial lawyer, relaxing on the deck of his mountain log home. Sixty celebrities stopped chewing their chicken when Clinton stood up, spread his arms and slid into a dead-on parody of Spence.

"I'm nothing but a country lawyer just trying to make a living," drawled the president the other week, duded up in a leather-fringed jacket that was a birthday present from Spence. "I'm just taking care of my little people. I'm just going to go back to my little shack in Wyoming."

The Man From Hope knows the value of humble beginnings. When Spence unholsters his "aw, shucks" style before a jury, he can shake institutions like the FBI or corporations like Kerr McGee and McDonald's. He shook them with Karen Silkwood. He shook them with Imelda Marcos. And now the $3.1 million settlement the Justice Department paid the family of Randy Weaver -- the white separatist whose wife and son were shot to death by federal agents in a standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho -- has put Spence smack in the middle of the news and has fired up his missionary zeal.

"There are lawyers in this world who care about the lives of ordinary people, and I am one of those," says Spence in his best summation baritone. "I want to forward some picture or principle of justice that needs to be seen by a jury, and after that, by the nation. I don't feel my work is done yet."

His "work" has already created a mini-conglomerate. He has a best-selling book, a new CNBC talk show, an O.J. trial commentary gig on "Larry King Live," two law firms, a rambling ranch, a pair of mansions, an airplane, Range Rovers and an upcoming photography exhibition, and he's one of the most sought-after speakers on the lecture circuit.

His current passion is the Trial Lawyers College he started with his own money on his 220-acre ranch two hours east of Jackson Hole. It's a cross between a new age retreat and moot court, where 50 disciples from around the country come for one month a year to learn the touchy-feely Spence method of relating to juries. The teachers include big names like Houston lawyer Richard "Racehorse" Haynes, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center and John Gotti defense lawyer Albert Krieger.

"I would like to be seen as someone who empowers lawyers who will fight a better fight," Spence says. "Maybe it is a bit touchy-feely, but justice is a feeling."

Then he drops his voice an octave and pleads his case to a reporter like he does to a jury. "I realize I wasn't born perfectly. I've done just about everything a man ought not to do. I still have a lot of growing up to do," he says.

It's the same strategy that has earned this silver-haired, 66-year-old legal gunslinger with the soulful eyes, the lined face and the preacher's voice a reputation as one of the best trial lawyers alive.

"If I was in deep doo-doo, I'd give him a call," says Haynes.

"If you shoot someone in front of eight people, you call Gerry Spence," says neighbor Alan Hirschfield, former head of Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox.

He mows down prosecutors and squeezes millions out of the Aetnas of the world, yet he maintains that "I'm always afraid." A president parodies him, but it soothes his need to be noticed. He mesmerizes jurors, yet the U.S. Justice Department uses his opening statement in the Marcos case as an example of what not to say. He is warm and fuzzy on television, yet he can be so rude in person that half the employees of a local bookstore took the day off recently rather than be present when he came to sign autographs.

His ego and confidence are as massive as his log home, yet he scrounges for compliments. He wants to be taken seriously, like when he calls Attorney General Janet Reno with suggestions on how to fix the FBI. Yet he once thought he might be the reincarnation of his hero, famed trial attorney Clarence Darrow.

He is, in a way, a reflection of our all-American psyche, with its glossy coat of confidence covering a conglomeration of insecurity. "He's like much of America," says John Bartko, Spence's co-counsel in the Marcos case. "It's what makes him so effective." Love and Expletives

It is one hour before Spence's weekly CNBC show and the star is cursing into the telephone as he sits on a stool in the kitchen of his cabin at the Trial Lawyers College. Outside on the porch, between the cottonwood trees and a few feet above the gurgling river, the camera crew awaits his arrival.

Spence is telling the producer he wants to do a show on his colleague and longtime friend, former Wyoming Supreme Court chief justice Robert Rose. The 79-year-old Rose sits a few feet away, clad in snakeskin boots and jeans and breathing heavily through tubes connected to a respirator.

The producers want Spence to talk more about the Simpson trial, a ratings winner. But no O.J. tonight, he tells them.

"Should I sell my soul for ratings?" Spence yells into the phone. He's wearing a black turtleneck, gym pants, New Balance running shoes and an Indian-blanket jacket. He kneads his reading glasses while hurling expletive-laced invective at the person on the other end. A felt-tip pen hangs from his mouth.

"You know this is a perfectly good show if you don't {expletive} it up for me. How does that fit in with the O.J. {expletive} Simpson case? Tell him I'm going to say O.J. Simpson' seven times. If he doesn't like this one, I'll pay for it and we'll do another one. I'll come to New Jersey and kiss his {expletive}."

The producers relent. Spence fixes his hair in place with Alberto Styling Spritz, changes into one of his trademark fringed jackets -- which his wife makes for him now as his mother once did -- then heads out to the porch for the taping. "They think there's something magic that happens when you mention O.J.," he mutters.

Countdown. Five, four, three, two -- and the cursing Spence gives way to the gentle man you want to tell your life story to.

"Good evening. Here we are at the East Fork of the Little Wind River. Stop and listen. Can you hear the water? Twenty five years ago . . ." Except for one O.J. reference, Spence and Rose reminisce about the old days, about how they stopped drinking and how they quit defending insurance companies. It is a moving half-hour that ends with Spence patting his old friend on the knee and telling him he loves him.

This is Spence at his best. The down-to-earth preacher tugging at the heartstrings of television viewers. (The show airs Fridays at 8 p.m.) He performs the same miracle with juries, as he did with the 12 Idaho residents who held Randy Weaver's fate during his trial two years ago on charges of conspiracy, murder, assault on federal agents and selling illegal weapons. They convicted him only of two minor offenses. During that case, Spence would focus on each juror, unwrap his vulnerabilities and turn the proceedings into a moral drama.

"He seemed really committed, that he was on the right side and trying to get justice," says Dorothy Hoffman, 63, who served on Weaver's jury.

"A character right out of a Hollywood movie, a dynamic orator," says jury foreman Jack Harris Weaver.

Salt Lake City lawyer Michael Larsen says Spence plays well with juries because "you're dealing with emotions, and eye wash, a resonating voice, presence and authority. He's very much a thespian." Without a jury, however, "his effectiveness is greatly diminished."

Spence has an enviable record in court, winning virtually every case. Some of those big decisions have been reversed by higher courts, such as the $25 million verdict he won against Penthouse International for libeling a Wyoming beauty queen, or the $10 million he won for the family of Karen Silkwood, who was contaminated by plutonium. Miss Wyoming ended up with nothing from Penthouse, and Silkwood's estate settled with Kerr McGee for a small portion of the actual award.

"He's a showboat," says Penthouse Publisher Bob Guccione. "He sent my lawyer a silver bullet before the case started."

Although he preaches preparation and psychological edge in his current bestseller, "How to Argue and Win Every Time," Spence has been known to embellish the facts and misread his audience. The American Lawyer magazine chastised him for bragging that he never lost a case and then proceeded to cite two examples, a 1985 manslaughter trial in Oregon and a Wyoming trial in which he represented himself on a speeding ticket.

David Nevin remembers that Spence stumbled when questioning a witness in the Weaver case. "He was crestfallen," says Nevin, who represented another defendant in the case. "But his philosophy is bring Band-Aids and keep going. I remember thinking that the greatest trial lawyer in the world still makes mistakes."

Spence breezed into the New York City office of the U.S. attorney in the Imelda Marcos case, threw his cowboy hat on the prosecutor's desk, crossed his boots on the table's edge and said, "Why don't you dismiss the charges so we can all go home?" according to prosecutor Charles LaBella, now chief of the criminal division in San Diego. The no-nonsense prosecutor says, "I told him to get his feet off my desk and that I'd see him in court."

It became Spence's most difficult case, a complicated financial trial heard before a by-the-book judge and 12 New Yorkers who equate Stetsons with Clint Eastwood movies. The U.S. Justice Department had charged Marcos with stealing millions from the Philippines and secretly investing the money in New York City office buildings.

Spence entered the case just six weeks before its 1990 trial and never mastered the complex material or the 350,000 pages of documents. His meandering, four-hour opening statement was constantly interrupted by the judge. The freewheeling sensitivity-session talks that win hearts in Boise won enmity in New York. His co-counsel, John Bartko, handed him yellow Post-It notes on what to ask witnesses, and finally Spence was almost dismissed by Marcos with two weeks to go.

"Gerry would be at his best in a case that has a moral dimension," says Bartko, a San Francisco attorney. "But he didn't have the intellectual interest to become deeply immersed in a complex set of facts."

By the end of the three-month trial, however, he rallied and gave a near-flawless closing statement. The jury acquitted Marcos four days later.

Spence answers critics by pointing to the results. "I gave the terrible opening statement that won the trial," he says. The Epiphany

Each day when he rises, about 5 a.m., Spence works on cases or punches his memoirs into his Powerbook, which he often cradles in his arms as he races through the day. His books are his babies. He's covered his big cases in "Gunning for Justice," taken on the legal system in "With Justice for None" and recounted the Weaver case in "From Freedom to Slavery." And he's so sensitive about them, says his secretary, that one negative line in a review can set him on a downward spin.

The memoir-in-progress is titled "The Making of a Country Lawyer." The book will deal with Spence's early years, starting with his birth in 1929, the year the Great Depression began. The first phase of his life ended 40 years later, when he dumped his first wife, Ann (now Anna). "I was a bad man at one time," he says.

He grew up in a strict Methodist family, the son of a chemist father and college-educated mother who taught school. When his younger sister died of cerebral meningitis at age 2, his mother made a pact with God. "My mother said, If you spare my son, I will give him to you,' " Spence says.

Esther Pfleeger Spence tried to make good on her promise and took Gerry to the Methodist Episcopal Church in Sheridan, Wyo., every Sunday, where the young boy would watch the ministers sway the congregation with their impassioned homilies. She hoped he would be a preacher, but he went to the University of Wyoming in Laramie and studied law instead.

He met Ann Wilson at a college dance and they married in 1948, when he was 19. His mother would never see her four grandchildren, or her son's graduation from law school at the top of his class, because she committed suicide later that year.

Anna recalls three things most about her young husband. He liked to shock people, loved to tell tales and acted on whatever idea came into his head. After law school, Spence and his family settled in Riverton, Wyo., where he set up a successful corporate law practice in a cinder-block building one block off Main Street. Even then, she says, Gerry had an introspective, deeply spiritual side to him. He and Anna hosted encounter groups in his law office, and Spence would often go for long solitary walks.

"I remember telling him one day that he always made good decisions, and he looked at me intently, motioned to his right shoulder and said, Ann, you know it's almost as if there's something on my shoulder telling me what to do.' "

Spence has chronicled his life in his books, including his deteriorating marriage, his drinking and his carousing. He met LaNelle Peterson at a restaurant at the Jackson Hole ski slope in 1968, and they began a year-long affair. When Anna discovered them together in his office, the Spences split up. Gerry filed for divorce a year later.

By that time, Spence says, he had abandoned the values he learned from his family, who lived on a ranch and hunted for their food. He was an ambitious young man who drank and smoked and forgot his religious upbringing. The deerskin jackets and Sunday sermons were replaced by Cadillac Eldorados and long evenings drinking with the guys.

"I wanted to conquer the world," he says. "I didn't want to hunt rabbit and deer. I wanted to eat beef. My goals were to raise my family, hunt and fish, have business interests and live a happy life."

He ran for Congress and lost. He sued everyone in town. He bought ranches, made a good living and ran a strict household. But he had an epiphany around age 40 after repeated self-examination and reading such books as "On Becoming a Person" by Carl Rogers and "The Courage to Be" by Paul Tillich.

"It was a self-discovery which has carried over into everything I do," he says. "We never really escape who we are or where we come from. I asked myself, What have I done? What have I accomplished with this wonderful life I had been given?' It was important for me to learn something about who I was."

This was the beginning of the second phase of his life, which started with a new marriage, to LaNelle, round-the-clock work habits and swearing off alcohol. Soon he would abandon big companies and work for the underdog.

"I decided I wanted to represent people, not corporations or banks or insurance companies," Spence says. "Corporations do not make up this country, people do." Greedy for Justice'

He has been on a tear since then, winning dozens of big cases, with the big purses and headlines that go with them. Tens of millions from McDonald's, USX Corp., Aetna. Trial mementos such as photographs, murder weapons, newspaper clippings and book jackets cover the walls of his Jackson Hole office and are testament to his successes. Full-time assistants constantly sift through potential cases.

"People are screaming for him to try their case," says Allen Young, a Salt Lake City area lawyer who has asked for the Wyoming maverick's help. "Every time he appears on Larry King or the Today' show, he gets inundated with cases." Just recently Spence turned down a $6 million fee to defend drug dealers because "I don't represent dopers."

A large wooden carving of an eagle casts its wings over the front of the office, a symbol of strength and power and freedom. Spence conveys his own strutting confidence, but underneath the facade is a mass of insecurity.

Rosemary McIntosh, his secretary, remembers being in Los Angeles a few months ago when Spence's book was on the bestseller list, he had two television interviews, and good things were happening with a couple of his big cases. He was on top of the world.

"He just stared out the window and groaned," McIntosh says. "I said, You're waiting for the other shoe to drop, aren't you?' He nodded."

McIntosh serves an important psychological function as well as a practical one. She stands off camera during his television shows, bucking him up, and later pats him on the back and tells him the show was wonderful. Spence prods those around him for kudos and attention. After the taping, he speaks into the microphone, asking his producer: "Linda, are you happy? Linda, how was that?"

He revels in his Trial Lawyers College, as 50 young attorneys hang on his every word. They cheer at Gerry's Greatest Hits: re-creations of his most impassioned trial summations, like "The Sparrow and the Hawk," wherein Spence won the acquittal of a young janitor who had confessed to killing a woman by stabbing her 16 times.

The disciples sit in rapt attention as he recounts the president's Gerry Spence imitation. They clearly love being close to this man who moves among the high and mighty. He talks about all the important politicians who were at the Aug. 20 party and his invitation to Hillary Rodham Clinton to teach at the college someday. Then he becomes the preacher and starts talking about his love for justice.

"People say you're a greedy man, Mr. Spence," he says in his booming, riveting voice. "I am a greedy man. Greedy for justice."

As he speaks, he places his thumbs in his vest, hanging his hands there just like other country lawyers who've had their way with juries. Just like Clarence Darrow, trying to right the wrongs and defend the damned?

Spence makes his own immodest proposal. "Maybe Clarence Darrow will be known as the Gerry Spence of his times." CAPTION: Defense attorney Gerry Spence is "a character right out of a Hollywood movie, a dynamic orator," says one juror. CAPTION: Gerry Spence defends his "touchy-feely" brand of lawyering by declaring: "Justice is a feeling." And the juries he so often persuades tend to agree. CAPTION: The clients: Trial whiz Gerry Spence and Imelda Marcos in 1990, top; Randy Weaver; and Karen Silkwood. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)