Pay close attention to your television over the next several weeks.

Amid the summer reruns of "Seinfeld," "The X-Files" and "ER," you may find something slightly more intriguing: Democratic and Republican politicians riding the talk-show circuit putting their own spin on tax relief.

With Congress back in session this week after the holiday recess, the House, Senate and President Clinton are trying to reach agreement on the first major package of tax cuts in 16 years.

But there is more at stake than Hope Scholarships and home-sale exemptions. The bigger fight is over which party gets the recognition for balancing the budget and providing tax breaks to working families.

This is not the kind of fight Republicans have been winning very often over the past two years. Remember the shellacking the GOP took when it tried to piggyback two controversial amendments onto a disaster-relief bill this spring? Remember how the Democrats successfully cast the Republicans as Scrooges two years ago during the school lunch program debate? Remember the drubbing the GOP took over proposed Medicare changes during last year's election campaign? Remember the government shutdown of 1995?

It doesn't help that House Speaker Newt Gingrich is badly wounded and has lost standing even among his own lieutenants. And it doesn't help that Republicans in the House and Senate keep treading on each other's nerves.

All of which puts added pressure on the pollsters and strategists and communications specialists designing this latest public relations assault -- message ministers like Greg Mueller -- to get it right this time.

"Now you have the PR game," Mueller says. "Who's going to get the credit? Nobody's going to give us credit on our own."

Mueller is president of a little-known Alexandria public relations firm, a hard-charging outfit called Creative Response Concepts. With a client list that includes the Christian Coalition, Human Events magazine and Regnery Publishing, CRC describes itself as the "blue-collar" communications arm for the conservative movement. That's blue collar as in not blue chip. Plain bagels from a torn paper sack on South Washington Street. Not big-think breakfasts at the elegant Hay-Adams.

"In the big picture, we're a little piece of the pie," explains Mueller, who has the build of a small-college linebacker and the earnest pitch of a small-town car salesman. "We're purposely not K Street. . . . We come in every day and hustle. . . . We're kind of on the outside looking in."

In pivotal moments, the Republican National Committee has been known to tap CRC to help carry the party's message beyond the Beltway -- to the readers of the Register Star in Rockford, Ill., and the listeners of Blanquita Cullum's talk radio shows, all 65 stations worth, from Richmond to Palm Springs.

Three years ago CRC was hauled in to promote the Contract With America. The firm helped dozens of neophyte GOP candidates generate local media attention across the country, fend off attacks and incorporate the contract's planks into their campaign strategies. Party bigwigs were impressed.

Now, the RNC has tapped CRC to help marshal conservative activists and sell the party's tax-cut message throughout the country.

As outsiders, GOP pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick says, CRC is doing "a phenomenal job at a time when a lot of people within the party feel like the congressional Republicans are failing them."

Explaining the party's public relations travails, Mueller says, "I don't think we're being as a party, and a movement, creative enough. A lot of our focus is too much inside the Beltway."

"What we need to do," says Keith Appell, a CRC spinmeister, "is go back to doing Reagan." Taking the Heat

The ideas start bubbling up at CRC's 9:30 a.m. daily staff meeting, where 10 conservative apostles gather around a conference table at the firm's modest suite of suburban offices. By lunchtime, the ideas are ricocheting off walls, sometimes rising to grand strategy, sometimes petering out.

What about a "back-to-school tour" this fall with Republican congressional leaders hitting inner cities from Detroit to Los Angeles touting school choice? What about a three-day "Promises Made, Promises Kept" tour right now, featuring Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott talking about cutting taxes and balancing the budget at steel mills and state capitols and family farms? What about getting Republicans to gather on the Capitol steps and read excerpts from President Kennedy's 1963 speech promoting broad-based tax cuts? (Soundbite: "Mr. Clinton, you're no Jack Kennedy.")

CRC's chairman and 50 percent stockholder is Leif E. Noren, a soft-spoken, professorial fellow who coaches girls' basketball in his spare time. With CRC's staff of mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings, Noren is, at 43, the resident grandpa. In the 1980s, during the heyday of the conservative movement, Noren was treasurer and executive director of the National Conservative Political Action Committee.

He founded CRC in 1989 with $15,000, and has since converted a fledgling direct-mail operation into a blossoming political and public relations tiger. (There are eight outside investors.) This year, Noren says proudly, the firm expects to gross $1.8 million -- a sum that still puts it in the little leagues, galaxies away from the planet of PR heavyweights like Hill & Knowlton or Edelman Public Relations Worldwide.

Still, CRC's reputation is growing in Republican political circles.

That is due in large part to Mueller, the firm's hyperactive president, and Appell, his hyperactive sidekick. They are the Batman and Robin of CRC.

Appell, 36, the firm's wiry senior account executive-political consultant, bears a slight resemblance to comedian Chevy Chase and has the wit to match. He talks fast. His delivery is good. In addition to doing a great Phil Gramm impersonation, he has the cornball charm of a carnival huckster. He was born to sell.

Voice-mail message to Washington Post reporter, June 11, 2:30 p.m.:

Check this out, CRC strikes again. . . . We're launching a coalition to push for school choice in D.C. Bipartisan coalition. Being led by none other than Alveda King, Dr. King's niece. She will say at this news conference tomorrow . . . that school choice is the next level for the civil rights movement. This, as the Republicans are getting beat over the head with the flood aid issue and just prior to Bill Clinton's racial relations speech. . . . Are we good or what? I'm not trying to blow our horn, but I mean, man! You ought to be there.

Mueller, 34, is best known as Pat Buchanan's communications director during his 1992 and '96 presidential campaigns. From the car phone or the van phone, he would dial up reporters all over America, trying to line up interviews for Buchanan and making him available to react to the latest news on the wire. Talk radio. Alternative weeklies. Local cable. Anywhere an audience could be found.

Operating on a small budget, the campaign could not compete over the paid airwaves, so it became the master of carefully staged events that were sure to draw "earned media," as the consultants call it, and generate newsworthy pictures -- like Buchanan strapping on a six-shooter at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz.

Mueller's resourcefulness impressed his Republican opponents.

"He is one of the most capable press operatives in the party," said Scott Reed, Bob Dole's '96 campaign manager, who recently recommended that party officials use CRC more often. "He gets more done in a morning than most press secretaries get done in a week. . . . He is very versed in the hand-to-hand combat."

Reed should know. After it became clear that Dole had wrapped up the GOP nomination, Buchanan refused to rally around the presumptive nominee. For months he was a pain, threatening to bolt the party and run as an independent in the fall.

Mueller has had a lot of experience in the role of political firefighter. He has had to defend Buchanan against charges of racism, antisemitism, protectionism, immigrant bashing and of being a GOP turncoat -- especially in 1992 when Buchanan challenged a sitting Republican president, George Bush.

"I'm not being invited down to the George Bush library dedication," Buchanan quipped, "and Greg is probably not either. But he showed he had courage. He is willing to stand up for his beliefs. You don't want yes men, and Greg Mueller is not a yes man."

And if you're a conservative flamethrower, as some of CRC's clients have been, you need PR people who won't wilt under intense heat.

When Regnery Publishing unveiled Gary Aldrich's "Unlimited Access" last year, the book was billed as an expose of security lapses inside the Clinton administration. It was a New York Times bestseller, but was aggressively attacked by White House officials and picked apart by some journalists -- especially a section in which the retired FBI agent wrote that it "appears that the president is a frequent late-night visitor to the Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington" and that "some information indicates" that Clinton's hotel companion is female and may be a celebrity.

Aldrich continues to stand by the book's account. But in a recent New Yorker article, Jane Mayer writes that Aldrich had, in fact, backed away from the Marriott Hotel allegation in an interview with her. CRC's response? It claimed Mayer has a left-of-center bias and it tried to undermine her credibility as a journalist. "A message went out," Mueller acknowledges. "You've got to be careful when you're dealing with her."

But David Brock, the American Spectator writer who was once the darling of the Right, also has taken shots at the book and the PR machine. In the July issue of Esquire, he writes that Regnery "perpetrated a hoax on the public by celebrating Unlimited Access' as legitimate and well-researched," but that Aldrich had based the passage about Clinton's hotel trysts on a rumor that Brock himself had just mentioned in passing. Brock, who is gay, says that to undermine his criticisms "Aldrich's PR people put out the word among conservatives that my real problem was not the book's truthfulness but Aldrich's anti-gay rhetoric."

Mueller denies any effort by CRC to discredit Brock. He says that he believes Brock's criticism of the Aldrich book stemmed from his desire to gain credibility with the media establishment before publication of Brock's book last fall on Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"But frankly," Mueller says, "I got no problem with Brock." Sending the Right Message

"There's no doubt that we have lost some PR battles in the last several years," says Charles Black, a veteran GOP consultant. "But first of all, we're up against a master PR specialist in Bill Clinton. . . . So that makes it tough.

"I'm not saying we couldn't have done a better job," he continues, "but it's not as simple as saying let's get everybody together and all speak from the same page."

A top Clinton administration official notes that Republicans are having the same difficulty Democrats had during the Reagan and Bush presidencies of the 1980s. "It's much more difficult as a congressional party to maintain discipline," the official says. "But it's also much more difficult with a smaller microphone to be heard."

"Republicans are going through growing pains in transitioning to power," says Republican consultant Craig Shirley, who proposes creating what he has called "The Message Center," an air traffic controller-style operation to coordinate and monitor communication. "You've got people all over the map on a variety of issues -- from disaster relief to the budget deal."

The recent debate over renewing China's most-favored-nation trading status, for example, bitterly divided the pro-business and social conservative wings of the party. Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, which was on the losing end, says the party continues to miss opportunities to define itself.

"The party elites think they've only got communications problems," says Bauer, a former Reagan administration official. "I wish our party would focus more on what it is we're trying to sell instead of on the techniques for selling it."

Just two weeks ago there was another issue that exposed tensions within the party -- this time between House and Senate Republicans. The GOP-controlled Senate voted to gradually raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, boost the premiums of affluent recipients and add a $5 co-payment for home health visits to any recipient -- leaving some House Republicans furious.

From their standpoint, here was a controversial vote, right before the Fourth of July recess, that threatened to rally senior citizens and baby boomers against the party while GOP members were supposed to be in their districts selling their tax-cut proposals.

"No, that was not a good thing," says Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), a member of the House GOP leadership team. "And it is not a good message."

The Republican Party says it is determined to get the message right this time. But that is particularly difficult with issues like a tax cut, which can be framed in terms of class war, the rich versus the rest of us. And history shows that Democrats often come out on top if they are able to cast the GOP as the party of the wealthy.

"Their tax-cut proposals are inflated toward the wealthy," says Laura Nichols, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). "They have an enormous public relations hurdle to leap on who their tax cuts help."

GOP pollsters have warned about this hurdle. Ed Gillespie, a former communications director for both the RNC and House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Tex.), was recently hired by Lott to help coordinate the communications strategy for the tax-cut package. He explained how the efforts of CRC and others fit into the big picture.

"It's important to have a lot of smaller megaphones going off at the same time," Gillespie says. "If they're going off at the same time with different messages it's just noise. If they're going off at the same time with the same message, it's an echo chamber. And right now, we've got an echo chamber."

One echo: Three-quarters of the benefits under GOP tax plans would go to households making less than $75,000, Republicans say. The GOP message handlers have implored Republican politicians to mouth the same themes, even the same words in public appearances ("A tax cut for every stage of life" is one popular refrain). As House GOP strategist Barry Jackson puts it, driving home a message "requires repetition, repetition, repetition."

CRC is largely focusing on media strategy outside the Beltway. The firm has assembled a coalition of conservative interest groups, dubbed "Putting Families First." It is booking the groups' leaders on television and radio chat shows, pushing them for print interviews and arranging conference calls with editorial writers.

CRC also relies on its fax lists of 10,000 media contacts, and on relationships cultivated with individual journalists around the country.

But that doesn't mean CRC ignores the Beltway media heavies. One of the firm's tactics is to generate a drumbeat of favorable coverage on an issue in small and regional papers throughout the country and then fax that package of news clippings to network producers and influential political reporters here in Washington. "And then all the sudden it's a national story," Appell says. "Press begets press."

So on June 30, CRC sent a memo to all GOP House and Senate press secretaries asking for any press clippings of their bosses explaining the tax-relief package to "working-class families." CRC would then package and recycle the clips to other media outlets in Washington.

The memo, supplied by a GOP press secretary, even spelled out the kind of images CRC was looking for: "Midwest congressman or Senator talking to farmers, northeast congresswoman or Senator talking to union workers, California congressman talking to small businesspeople . . . you get the idea."

"We've got to let people do a little bit more of our talking as a party," Mueller says.

Without even realizing it, he then repeats Gillespie's directive: "Our job is echo chamber." CAPTION: Pat Buchanan, left, and Creative Response Concepts President Greg Mueller during the 1996 New Hampshire primaries.