Roger Ailes is conducting the regular 3:30 meeting in his Fox News office when a secretary walks in with the latest overnight ratings.

Slipping on his glasses, Ailes announces that Bill O'Reilly's Fox talk show had scored a .8 compared with MSNBC's "Equal Time," with a .2 rating. "Geez, there are some guys on the window ledge over there," he says, glancing across Sixth Avenue at the towering Rockefeller Center complex where he used to work for NBC.

At the moment, Ailes has plenty to crow about. His 2 1/2-year-old cable venture, Fox News Channel, is consistently beating rival MSNBC in prime time and, earlier this month, for an entire 24-hour period -- despite the fact that Fox is in 9 million fewer homes. And taunting his former network, especially NBC News President Andrew Lack, seems to be his favorite pastime.

Ailes says he's reacting to reports from journalists that Lack has privately denigrated him. "I'm not going to go off the record," he barks. "Have him step outside."

For the gruff, hard-charging Ailes, who spent two decades helping to elect Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, this is a moment of sweet vindication. He's had nothing but success in his second career, first as president of CNBC, the business network that became far more profitable under his command. Then he quit NBC over a management dispute, became president of Fox News and created a news division for a network better known for "X-Files" and "The Simpsons."

Considerable debate still rages over whether Rupert Murdoch's network, whose slogan is "fair and balanced," tilts to the right -- a charge that Ailes passionately denies. But considering that Fox News had no employees, studios or cameras when Ailes signed on in 1996, there is no debate about the magnitude of his accomplishment.

"He's a guy you should never underestimate," says Brit Hume, hired from ABC to be Fox's Washington managing editor. "I would rank what he did in building a 24-hour network from scratch in six months with anything anybody has done in the modern era in television news."

Ailes, 58, offers a simple explanation: "We work our [butts] off. We hustle, hustle, hustle."

As for complaints that he is pursuing a political agenda, the former Republican strategist says: "I don't understand why being balanced is right of center, unless the other guys are pretty far left. I don't frankly give a damn, as Rhett Butler said. I don't worry about all these attacks. All they do is drive people to us. Most of the American people think the news is left of center. . . .

"I know some people question this because of my background. I'm better qualified in many ways because I recognize points of view I don't agree with. Some pathetic people in journalism think their point of view is the only point of view."

Mike McCurry, the former White House spokesman, has a dramatically different assessment, which is why he initially balked at putting administration officials on "Fox News Sunday." He calls Fox News "an extension of the hate-Clinton machine." While Ailes talks about balanced news, McCurry says, "it doesn't square with what's on the channel, which is a nonstop assault on the president of the United States. They ended up with the Clinton-haters. That's their audience."

Former White House communications director Don Baer, an occasional guest, disagrees, saying that "Roger is always open to voices that run against what you might think would be their prevailing point of view."

An NBC insider says Ailes's attacks are reminiscent of the days when he made negative political ads. "It's like he's running a campaign again, so he has to slur the competition," he says.

As a two-fisted political operative, Ailes was outspoken in denouncing what he saw as unfair coverage. But even those on the other side of the fence say he's no narrow-minded ideologue.

Robert Squier, who ran President Clinton's 1996 ad campaign, got to know Ailes during the five years they were paired as partisan combatants on the "Today" show. He calls Ailes "a very decent man."

"Once we got on the show, I realized he was a much more complex person than I'd given him credit for," Squier says. "He always had a resentment of the press and how he was dealt with by the press, so it's fascinating he ends up running a news organization."

A CONTRARIAN APPROACH

Earlier this month, Fox reporter Rita Cosby prepared a piece quoting unnamed sources as saying that the Clintons barely speak in private and cut short their Utah vacation when the first lady stormed out of the room after a shouting match.

Ailes initially balked at running the story. "I'm always uncomfortable with personal reporting," he says. In fact, he says he refused to run two earlier Clinton scandal stories -- involving the stained dress and the cigar incident -- until they were made public elsewhere.

In this case, however, Ailes decided to air the story after consulting with Brit Hume and John Moody, his vice president for news. And it was trumpeted the next day by Murdoch's New York Post, a corporate synergy that often boosts Fox.

"By the time we went with it," Ailes says, "both of these guys assured me that this was real, well-reported and well-sourced. Some people feel that's a story that's strictly personal. The problem is, they have made their marriage and photo-op love scenes news. They have no problem with the press covering them smooching on the beach." (The White House has said the first couple was unaware that a photographer was shooting that Martha's Vineyard scene.)

Why didn't other news organizations touch the allegations about the Clintons' marriage? In part, Ailes says, because of "individual journalists who become friendly with Hillary and naturally will try to protect them to some degree."

Ailes's contrarian approach goes beyond politics. He boasts about a recent three-part series from Los Angeles reporting that "many educators believe self-esteem teaching is harmful to students."

"The mainstream media will never cover that story," Ailes says. "I've seen 10,000 stories on education and I've never seen one that didn't say the federal government needed to spend more money on education."

Ailes also believes that Fox does a better job covering religion. "Ninety percent of the people in this country say they pray once a week," he says. "I'm not interested in trying to go out and prove they're morons. I don't believe all priests are pedophiles and that all ministers are like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker."

For all his bluster, friends say Ailes has mellowed a bit, particularly since his third marriage, to former CNBC executive Elizabeth Tilson last year. "Roger Ailes is one of the softest touches I've ever known," Hume says. "He is a complete softy for people down on their luck."

Ailes's colleagues are well aware of his past life, and some insist it's a plus. "He knows some of the weaknesses of journalism," Moody says. "In his past life, he knew how to play on those, but as a news executive he knows how to fix them."

He knows how to fix ratings as well. Fox News Channel's prime-time ratings jumped 124 percent in February compared with those of a year earlier, while MSNBC was up 8 percent and CNN down 23 percent. In daytime, Fox led the three cable news networks with a 70 percent increase -- all the more impressive because Fox is in 39 million households, compared with 49 million for MSNBC and 76 million for CNN.

Wielding a fat checkbook, Ailes has signed up a slew of brand-name anchors and commentators: Hume, Tony Snow, Fred Barnes, Mort Kondracke, Juan Williams, Mara Liasson, Eleanor Clift, Dick Morris, Matt Drudge. His latest acquisition is Paula Zahn, formerly of "CBS This Morning," who now anchors Fox's 7 p.m. newscast and says she's excited by the newsroom's "energy."

Fox is in some ways a guerrilla operation. The news division has 1,000 employees -- roughly two-thirds fewer than the worldwide news-gathering operations of NBC and CNN. But Ailes has compensated in part by appealing to a younger audience. He once hired the rapper Chuck D as a commentator; now he's launching a late-night talk show with Rob Nelson, founder of a twenty-something political action group called Lead or Leave.

If the balding, heavyset Ailes seems comfortable as a news czar, that's because television was his first love. The product of a blue-collar family in Warren, Ohio, he began his career as a production assistant at Cleveland's KYW-TV. That was the station where the old "Mike Douglas Show" got its start, and Ailes soon joined the popular variety show, becoming its executive producer at 28.

Ailes met Nixon during an appearance on the program, told him he needed to take television more seriously and wound up as the media adviser for Nixon's 1968 campaign, producing live shows in which the candidate answered questions from carefully screened panels. Ailes coached Reagan in the 1984 presidential debates and was the media mastermind behind Bush's 1988 White House bid.

His street-fighter style was frequently on display. After prepping Bush for his tense on-air confrontation with CBS's Dan Rather, Ailes declared that "Dan Rather is the most biased reporter in the history of broadcasting" -- a statement the Bush campaign quickly disavowed.

At the Republican convention, he confiscated the equipment of a cameraman who jostled him because, Ailes loudly proclaimed, "I couldn't reach the throat."

"I turned around, grabbed the camera and decked him," Ailes says. "I'd do it again today."

In 1989, Ailes handled Rudy Giuliani's first, unsuccessful campaign to be New York mayor. As recently as 1992, Ailes came off the bench to help with Bush's State of the Union address. But he slipped through the revolving door the following year when NBC hired him to run CNBC and develop a second cable outlet, with no big names, called America's Talking.

Ailes promptly hired such talk-show hosts as Geraldo Rivera, Chris Matthews, Dee Dee Myers and actor Charles Grodin, even hosting a program himself. He also created new business shows for CNBC's thriving daytime schedule.

But he didn't lose his talent for controversy. Ailes moonlighted as the producer of Rush Limbaugh's short-lived television show. And he infuriated the White House with a 1994 appearance on Don Imus's radio show. He referred to Clinton and skater Nancy Kerrigan by saying, "She's the only one he hasn't hit on." And referring to the lawyers that Hillary Rodham Clinton brought to Washington, including Vince Foster, Ailes said that one was under investigation, "one was forced to resign . . . and one's dead. I wouldn't stand too close to her."

Still, Ailes's professional stock was soaring until NBC decided to can the quirky America's Talking and replace it with MSNBC, a joint venture with Microsoft that would be run by Lack, not Ailes. Upset by the power shift and a plan to reorganize CNBC, Ailes quit in early 1996. He soon called Murdoch, looking for consulting work, and says that within an hour he had a deal to launch a news channel.

Skepticism about the new venture was typified by a New York Times piece on that announcement. The paper said some were suggesting that the cable project was an attempt "to give Mr. Ailes a toy to play with," and that "it may be less a toy than an imaginary friend."

To get the imaginary channel off the ground as the six-month deadline approached, Ailes began calling management meetings at 4 a.m. When one executive showed up late, Ailes dismissed him, in part to set an example.

Ailes has been a thorn in NBC's side ever since. He made a big-bucks offer to lure away Rivera, prompting the network to give him a $7 million deal. "I wasn't prepared to go that high anyway," Ailes says. "I just wanted to see them pay as much as they could."

MSNBC blundered, Ailes believes, by hiring a host of young "contributors" who were expected to speak knowledgeably on everything from education to nuclear nonproliferation. "They bought their own hype that they were going to revolutionize television," he says. And the inevitable zinger against Lack: "Andy was too busy telling people he's America's news leader when he should have been [at MSNBC] grinding it out."

Determined to avoid a mudslinging contest with Ailes, MSNBC executives asked spokesman Cory Shields to respond. "Andy Lack has been actively involved with MSNBC from the very beginning," Shields says. "He's the president of NBC News. It's his job to be involved."

MSNBC staffers admit they've lost momentum in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and bringing in John McLaughlin and Oliver North didn't help. But they say they still beat Fox in 24-hour ratings, in the 25-to-54 group that advertisers love and in many of the nation's major markets.

Fox's success, Ailes says, is built on more hard news every half hour, better graphics and more appealing nighttime hosts. These include Bill O'Reilly, former host of "Inside Edition," whose combative show consistently scores a higher percentage in the Fox universe than CNN; Catherine Crier, a former ABC and CNN correspondent; and radio hosts Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, who referee a liberal-conservative faceoff. Fox is also more likely to feature more unorthodox conservative voices such as Larry Klayman, who is suing the Clinton administration; Gary Aldrich, the FBI agent turned anti-Clinton author; and former Nixon aide Monica Crowley, along with such liberal stalwarts as the Progressive's Ruth Coniff and radio host Ellen Ratner.

One secret to Fox's success is its knack for grabbing publicity. When Murdoch's Post reported that an Atlanta high school band came to New York hoping to get on Rosie O'Donnell's talk show and felt stiffed, Ailes's staff quickly booked the abandoned band on "Fox and Friends" and had them play in front of the electronic news "zipper" that wraps around the Fox building. O'Donnell called the producer to complain. "I hope she trashes us," Ailes says. "She's got a pretty big audience."

O'Donnell did just that, and the next day's Post carried this front-page screamer: "ROSIE O'RANT." Another coup for Fox.

AILES'S 'FOX FILES'

Roger Ailes pops the "Fox Files" tape into his VCR, watching the jumpy footage set against scary music.

"This is not police video," the announcer intones. "Now the criminals are the cameramen. These bad boys are taping their crimes in progress."

Ailes personally produces the show, which he concedes has "a lot of tabloid stuff," but that, he says, is what it takes to succeed in prime time. "Anything I hate, I make them stay up all night and finish," he says.

"Fox Files" and "Fox News Sunday" are the only Ailes productions that are carried on Fox's broadcast network (Channel 5 in Washington), with its much larger audience. Yet he says he has no desire to create a Rather-or-Brokaw-like newscast or other non-cable venture. The over-the-air networks, he says, "are in the business of having to make money."

Not that Ailes has made any so far. But while Fox News Channel lost $150 million in the last two years, Ailes says he is 15 percent ahead of his business plan and that Murdoch congratulated him last week. He's just launched a $4 million promotion campaign trumpeting Fox as "the most powerful name in news" -- an idea that Ailes essentially made up.

The larger challenge for Ailes is to overcome the notion that he is championing what he calls "right-wing news."

"Anybody who tells you he doesn't have bias is either lying or he's brain-dead," he says. "The issue is not bias, it's arrogance. Am I going to use my news organization to shove my views down your throat? That's not my job."

CAPTION: Fox News President Roger Ailes, who built a cable news division for a network better known for "The Simpsons," strongly denies that he delivers the news with a right hook.

CAPTION: "Some pathetic people in journalism think their point of view is the only point of view," says Fox News Channel's creator, Roger Ailes.