The Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., facing the possibility of having to spend millions of dollars for a government-ordered recall of its "500" steelbelted radial tires, has hired Washington attorney Clark Clifford to take its case to Washington.

Firestone spokesman Michael Fay confirmed over the weekend that the Akron-based company "is utilizing the Clifford law firm on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration matters."

But Fay denied reports from industry sources that Clifford would be taking over control of Firestone's case from the Cleveland law firm of Jones, Day, Reavies & Pogue.

"Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue continues to represent Firestone on NHTSA and other matters," he said.

Firestone has come under pressure after reports from the Center for Auto Safety last year cited the "500" as a hazardous tire with a high incidence of consumer problems, including blowouts and tread separation.

And after its own probe and congressional hearings, NHTSA earlier this month ruled that the tire has a "safety-related defect" that has led to thousands of failures and dozens of subsequent deaths and injuries. At that time, NHTSA asked Firestone to recall 13 million "500" tires still on the road, and set an Aug. 7 hearing date at which Firestone will have an opportunity to show NHTSA why the government should not order such a recall.

With the hiring of Clifford only a week before that hearing, industry sources say the move indicates an attempt by Firestone to try and "cut its losses" and negotiate with the government through Washington veteran Clifford.

Yesterday, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who founded the Center for Auto Safety, wrote an open letter to Firestone stockholders calling the addition of Clifford to the legal team "an extraordinary move for any large corporation."

"You should know," Nader wrote, "that whenever Clark Clifford enters a case, even greater public attention is focused on the controversy - which in this instance means the request by the government that Firestone recall the 13 million tires.

"This attention can only serve to alert many more owners of these tires - which is good - and to extend the turmoil in which your company finds itself - a situation you would certainly not desire."

Clifford's style, which Nader characterized as "more political than other Washington lawyers" because "he doesn't like to appear in court or formal regulatory proceedings in public . . . may leave the company susceptible to speculation, more uncertainty and more delay."

Clifford could not be reached for comment.

He was a secretary of defense in the Johnson administration and represented former federal budget director Bert Lance before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee last year.