A leader of the American Nazi party in Arlington said the group, which has never had much local support, is moving its offices to the Midwest where it hopes to attract more members and improve its reputation.

Martin Kerr, national organizer of the National Socialist White People's Party, based at 2507 N. Franklin Rd., said the party will reestablish its headquarters within the next 18 months. Kerr said an exact location has not yet been determined and refused to give further details about the move, citing a need for security.

"We just want to make the transition without a whole lot of hassle," he said this week.

The party has traditionally declined to reveal who its supporters are or the size of its membership. Kerr did say the group has suffered from a lack of local support, blaming the area's predominance of government and military employes. "These are not people looking to join revolutionary organizations," he said. The party expects more success in the Midwest where a single employer does not dominate the work force, Kerr said.

The party, originally known as the American Nazi Party, was founded in Arlington in 1959 by a former naval officer and advertising artist, George Lincoln Rockwell. He was shot to death in an Arlington parking lot by a former party member in 1967.

The organization probably reached its peak membership under Rockwell, according to John Rees of Baltimore, author of a newsletter on fringe political groups. It probably had 50 to 60 active members then, he said.

"Even then they cast a longer shadow than their substance would have justified," said Nathan Perlmutter, director of the Anti-Defamation League. Nazi groups, he said, have always had "more thunder and lightning than substance in our society."

"I think if we said it had 10 members today, we'd be exaggerating," Rees said, adding that the group has always been able to pick up support from other fringe groups such as motorcycle gangs, and more recently, some "punk" groups.

The Arlington organization, Rees said, is "known for the smallness of its size and their inability to get into the fringe" of political activity in the country. More recently a similar group has been formed in Louisiana and has challenged the Arlington group as the major Nazi organization in the country, Rees said.

The party's move from Northern Virginia is one of a number of changes it is apparently undergoing. As of Jan. 1, Kerr said, the party will be called the "New Order," a name more in line with a new image that Kerr said will stress pride in the heritage and accomplishments of whites, which he said include the national space program.

Kerr said the party will also work toward relieving pollution, halting the spread of nuclear weapons, and will raise funds to support research in cystic fibrosis and other diseases that Kerr asserted primarily strike people of Northern European ancestry.

The group has changed its name before, citing image problems that have been real enough. In 1962, the Virginia General Assembly enacted a law, sponsored by an Arlington legislator, revoking the American Nazi Party's state charter. The group's reputation for being "anti-Jewish" and "antiblack," Kerr said, is "harmful to us and inaccurate."

Rees also disputed Kerr's claims about the group's beliefs. All of the American Nazi groups share a common philosophy, he said. "They're all antiblack, anti-Jewish."

Since 1968, the party has been housed in the same two-story brick structure near the Arlington Courthouse. Kerr said the organization is looking for a buyer for the building, currently assessed at about $70,000. It is only blocks away from a proposed multimillion-dollar Metro station complex.