IN LATE January 1986, conservative fundraiser Carl "Spitz" Channell held a dinner at the elegant Hay Adams Hotel in Washington to honor the Nicaraguan rebels, or "contras." Anxious to impress some potential donors, Channell had put together a sparkling program. The speakers included Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council. Their impassioned pleas on behalf of the "freedom fighters" struck a chord with the staunchly conservative crowd.

Sitting among the well-heeled givers, movement activists and White House officials was Bruce Cameron, a long-time lobbyist for Americans for Democratic Action, a bastion of Washington liberalism. In recent months, Cameron's politics had taken a sudden turn. Once a determined antagonist of the administration, Cameron was now escorting contra leaders around Congress and drafting legislation to provide them aid.

Cameron was one of an unlikely group of veteran Democrats -- including Robert Leiken, Penn Kemble and Bernard Aronson -- who might be called "Ollie's Liberals." Although there is no evidence that thequartet was involved in any illegal activities, it played an intriguing role in the unfolding of the Iran-contra affair. At a time when the Reagan administration was at the high-water mark of its political power and liberal forces were most disoriented, these four men acted as couriers across the ideological divide, helping make the contra case to fellow Democrats.

The group's activities highlight the extent to which foreign policymaking in the Reagan administration has been delegated to private individuals. On the military front, people like Richard Secord and Albert Hakim helped set up a covert arms network. In the political sphere, Cameron and his colleagues built congressional support. "Republicans in general are not good at dealing with Democrats," says Robert Kagan, head of the State Department's office of public diplomacy. "There had to be a reaching out to Democrats. That was something that neither Spitz Channell nor the conservative movements were capable of doing. . . . These four were instrumental in providing it." The New Republic has gone further. "When the history of the American debates over Nicaragua is written," an editorial declared last year, the group "will be found to have transformed both public discussion and public policy."

Bruce Cameron stands almost 6-foot-2 but looks shorter because of a slight stoop. He may have acquired it from years of bending down to buttonhole shorter congressmen as they rushed to the floor of Congress. Cameron, who is 44, boasts openly about past triumphs, such as his success in keeping military aid from Guatemala during its dark years of dictatorship. An antiwar activist while in college, he had been a fixture on Capitol Hill since 1976. As an ADA lobbyist, Cameron was always ready to help draft a bill or craft a compromise. When the Carter administration requested aid for the Sandinistas, Cameron spent months lobbying for it.

Cameron's views on Nicaragua began to change in 1982 when he began spending time with Arturo Cruz. Jr. The son of future contra leader Arturo Cruz Sr., Cruz had served in the Sandinista government, become disillusioned and left. Cruz, who would later make news as the boyfriend of Fawn Hall, had an unpublicized but important influence on liberal opinion during the early days of the Nicaragua debate. In lengthy discussions, Cruz urged Cameron to discard his illusions about the Sandinistas.

Cruz also talked with Robert Leiken, a scholar whose career had taken some interesting turns. In the 1970s, Leiken had taught economics at think-tanks in Mexico and considered himself a Marxist. In 1981, though, he went to work for the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies; two years later, he switched over to the liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he edited an anthology critical of Reagan's Central American policies.

Leiken's discussions with Cruz and others had left him with growing doubts about the Sandinistas. In August 1984, Leiken went for a first-hand look. His encounters with peasants fed up with the government convinced him that the Nicaraguan regime was the most oppressive he had ever seen. Writing of his experiences for The New Republic, Leiken told of widespread corruption, elite decadence and shortages. Leiken suddenly found himself quoted in the press, cited in Congress, even mentioned in a speech by President Reagan.

In the spring of 1985, a handful of Democrats began meeting to discuss how to convince congressional moderates to restore aid to the contra forces. The group was brought together by Penn Kemble, a leading figure in the Henry Jackson wing of the Democratic Party and the head of Prodemca (Friends of the Democratic Center in Central America). Prodemca, whose board members included Jeane Kirkpatrick, John Silber and Ben Wattenberg, sought to build public support for U.S. policy in Central America. Bruce Cameron and Robert Leiken attended the meeting. So did political consultant Bernard Aronson, a one-time speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and an adviser to the Mondale-Ferraro campaign.

The foursome was in great demand that spring. Like pollinating bees, they carried information among all the parties to the debate. Recalls Rep. Dave McCurdy, an Okahoma Democrat, "they acted as go-betweens, helping take the edge off the adversary relationship that had developed between us and the administration." The four also became close to Oliver North. In meetings at the Old Executive Office Building, North listened to their views and, in return, offered sensitive intelligence on Nicaragua. It was an odd relationship -- the gung-ho marine colonel and the veteran liberals. Nonetheless, each side realized that the other could help it, and a symbiotic bond developed. After the House approved $27 million in non-military aid for the contras in June, North invited Bruce Cameron to his office for a victory cigar. But Cameron's role dismayed many of his former liberal colleagues and he resigned from the ADA.

In 1986, the president announced he would seek $100 million in aid for the contras, portending another bruising battle with Congress. For all its fervor, the administration was still unable to sell its policy to the American public. For conservative activists, that failure was a source of unending frustration. Spitz Channell decided to do something about it. A relative unknown, the conservative fundraiser saw in the contra cause a way to boost the profile of his National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty. With the blessing of Oliver North, Channell conceived an elaborate $2-million PR campaign. While preparing the campaign, he met with Penn Kemble and encouraged him to participate. Kemble was reluctant -- he had never heard of Channell and couldn't find anyone else who had -- but he put Channell in touch with Bruce Cameron, who was looking for a job. Soon after, Channell agreed to fund Cameron's lobbying activities.

All that Cameron now lacked was a tax-exempt organization to receive the money. He got it from his friend Robert Owen, who had been Oliver North's "courier" to the contras. Owen had a mostly inactive lobbying organization that he deeded over to Cameron who renamed it the Center for Democracy in the Americas. Cameron was now in business. In the coming months he and his center would receive $66,000 from Channell. Eventually Kemble, too, came on board, his doubts laid to rest by Channell's close ties to the administration and conservative donors. (Both Kemble and Cameron say that, at the time, they had no knowledge of Channell's role in supplying weapons to the contras.)

By early February, Channell's PR program was in full throttle. Twice-weekly strategy sessions were held and Cameron and Kemble occasionally sat in. The program did not go well. A planned direct-mail operation never got off the ground, some Nicaraguan speakers failed to show for appointments, a series of TV ads was so extreme as to alienate all but the most committed. On March 20, the House was scheduled to vote on contra aid, and Channell planned a victory party. There was little celebrating, though, for the aid was defeated, 222 to 210. A despondent Channell spent most of the evening chewing out people who had worked for him. He was particularly upset with Cameron's failure to deliver the Democrats, and soon after Channell cut off his funding.

Cameron and the others decided that the only way to reverse the vote was to win over moderates -- and that would require cleaning up the contras. Seeking to overcome administration indifference to contra reform, members of the group strenously lobbied Elliott Abrams. At one of many meetings, an exasperated Abrams admonished the four for becoming so enmeshed in contra affairs. The "meddlers," he called them.

The foursome's involvement with the rebels indeed ran deep. Cameron and Leiken became confidants of Arturo Cruz and Alfonso Robelo, leaders of the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), the principal contra group. The two Americans counseled Cruz on his efforts to reform UNO, guided him on dealings with the administration, and, when Cruz contemplated resigning -- which was almost all the time -- they were there to dissuade him. Leiken's opinion, says Cruz, "had tremendous influence on my decision to stay." Leiken went so far as to visit a contra camp in Honduras, telling field commanders and common soldiers of Washington's interest in human rights. Not everyone appreciated his concern. A few weeks later, a congressional delegation visiting the camp saw a soldier bearing a sign that declared, "Robert Leiken es non grato."

Meanwhile there were sessions with Sen. Sam Nunn and Dave McCurdy and appearances before the foreign affairs committees. Special attention was directed at Rep. Les Aspin. The Wisconsin Democrat had voted against contra aid in March but was not entirely comfortable with that position. Impressed by articles that Leiken had written, Aspin contacted him and longtime acquaintance Bernard Aronson. In April, both accompanied Aspin on a fact-finding trip to Nicaragua. Eventually Aspin voted for contra aid. "The congressman is no expert on Central America," an aide observes. "People like Leiken and Aronson. . . had considerable input into his decision."

As the vote approached in the House, President Reagan delivered a last-minute address to the nation. His speechwriter: Bernard Aronson. White House Communications Director Pat Buchanan sent a preliminary draft to Aronson for a look. "It didn't strike the right tone," Aronson recalls. In rewriting it, Aronson took pains to address Democratic concerns. His draft contained the administration's first admission of contra human rights abuses and a presidential pledge to stop them.

In the end, it's unclear how much impact the speech had. It was delivered at an odd hour -- noon -- and the networks refused to carry it. Nonetheless, the president's accommodating approach was widely noted during the debate the next day (June 25). The final tally: 221 to 209 in favor of aid. The contras would get $100 million, including the first lethal aid in two years.

In early August, Oliver North invited Cameron to his office for another cigar. North presented him with a letter from President Reagan. "Your contribution to forging a bipartisan policy of democratic renewal in Central America has been of profound importance," it stated. "While the struggle is not yet over, with your help we have taken an important step in the right direction."

Four months later, Oliver North was out. Later, Spitz Channell pled guilty to conspiracy charges. The IRS began investigating Cameron's tax-exempt organization. Prodemca, stung by the reports on Channell, reimbursed the money it had received from his organization. On top of it all, in March, Arturo Cruz resigned from UNO. The man whom the liberal foursome had made the centerpiece of its reform effort had finally called it quits.

Finally, the group itself splintered. Leiken, Aronson and Kemble have reaffirmed their full support for the contras, a position that has severely damaged their influence on the Hill. Cameron, at considerable emotional cost, has broken with his colleagues. The Iran-contra hearings, he says, have shown that the administration's Nicaragua policy "has not enjoyed the support of the American people, of Congress. . . even of the Nicaraguans themselves." He adds, "Unless the administration negotiates directly with the Sandinistas, and the Sandinistas show themselves to be totally inflexible, I do not believe Congress will support aid again -- and I don't think it should."

Michael Massing is a New York writer who reports frequently on foreign affairs.