Steve Harbaugh, a slender, intense Annandale teen-ager, squints against the sun's glare on the Washington Mall and explains why he and a Montogomery County youth with him named Dale have joined the Ku Klux Klan.

"I didn't like the idea of all this aid to minorities, and all these refugees coming over here and getting set up with cars and everything while poor whites have to work for what they get," says Harbaugh, who, at 17, is sure of his contempt for blacks and Jews.He says he was kicked out of a high school in Northern Virginia for trying to organize a Klan-type group there.

Looking for someone who "would stick up for whites for a change," Harbaugh became a Klan member nine months ago. He and Dale, who would't give his last name, have come to the mall to meet Bob Lyons, a local Klan official who is helping them recruit others their age.

"We're the new Klan, not the old image of the tobacco-chewing country bumpkin," says Lyons, a tall, burly redhead who boasts a law degree from the Univeristy of Baltimore. "We represent Middle America."

An emphasis on image and youth recruitment is just the latest evidence that the Ku Klux Klan -- the symbol of 20th century racism -- is having a resurgence in this area and else where. Though the Klan numbers are still small, perhaps no more than 10,500 scattered through 22 states by one estimate, the KKK as an organization is at its most vocal and at its greatest strength in more than a decade.

From Richmond to Baltimore, law enforcement authorities, civil rights groups and human relations offices report new Klan recruitment and increasing incidents of racial harassment and violence either by Klan members or Klan imitators.

In Richmond, the organization, using a converted foundry as headquarters held a Memorial Day weekend "open house" with black families living in the next block. Baltimore County had 29 reported cross-burnings last year.

In Montgomery County, graffiti placed on black churches and a series of pipe bombings of black homes prompted concerned whites there to form a network of neighbors who visit the victims of racial abuse and try to calm their fears and feelings of minority isolation.

"We realized these things kept happening, so we've tried to offer emotional support," says Freda Mauldin, deputy executive director of the Montgomery County Human Relations Department. The neighbors, she reports, are called into action about twice a month; the most recent serious trouble involved a black family jolted on a March night by a shotgun blast through their window.

Though there is some dispute over how many of these activities can be linked directly to organized Klan units, the Klan's appeal to people's prejudices is the main reason its name and symbols are used by many of those who commit acts of racial intimidation.

"I know people are clinging to it," said Mongomery County police Sgt. Richard Williams. He cites a note left recently at a black church, warning members of the congregation to "get out of town or you'll be killed." It was signed, "the KKK."

To the victims or communities touched by racial incidents, it is no less traumatic to be told they are the work of Klan sympathizers or juvenile vandals, not the Klan.

"Whether it's the Klan or a group of imitators, it feels the same," said one Klan watcher.

Officials hesitate to share details of racial harassment for fear of fanning emotions already strained by race riots in Miami and the recent sniper attack on black leader Vernon Jordan.

The Klan, they say, already gets enough organizational help by exploiting tensions over school busing, crime, affirmative action programs and economic problems.

"Yeah, we notice we pick up members in times of stress," Klan recruiter Lyons acknowledged. "It has a lot to do with the economic and political situation. There's a lot of unemployment, and the forced busing and reverse job discrimination all have adverse affects on people."

To hear certain Klan leaders talk -- and the membership is large enough to support several rival factions -- there are scores of members and sympathizers in and around the Washington area. They meet secretly, in dens of four, pay dues of $40 a year and look forward to the day when "defenders of the White Majority" will parade in hooded splendor down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Despite occasional public demonstrations, the Klan in Maryland and Virginia so far has kept a low profile.

"The Klan as an organization is hardly what it is as an image," says Norman Olshansky, executive secretary of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nal B'rith's Virginia and North Carolina office.

"I treat the Klan today as symptomatic of a bigger problem, and to focus on the Klan is wrong unless you also talk about human relations and racism in general," he cautioned.

Last fall, the League issued a report on Klan activies in which it noted that membership had increased about 50 percent since 1975. While estimating its strength at no more than 10,500 members, the report said there had been an alarming, 100 percent increase in the number of Klan Sympathizers, which it estimated to be between 75,000 to 100,000 today.

These sympathizers, according to the report, were drawn largely from the South where the Klan was founded in Tennessee in 1866. Its creators were six former Confederate officers who wanted to keep freed slaves from voting and gaining control of Southern politics.

Taken from the Greek word "Kuklos," meaning circle, a revived Klan numbered in the millions during the 1920s, then almost disbanded until opposition to the civil rights movement again swelled its ranks to more than 60,000. A crackdown by law enforcement agencies forced its seeming disappearance until it began a slow but steady resurgence several years ago.

"Our basic beliefs have remained the same as those of the Klan for the last 100 years, but they are becoming more acceptable to whites now," said Lyons, who declined to say where he works or ives. Those beliefs include a commitment to a platform of racial segregation and a desire to renew control of a society they feel is oriented to the wishes of blacks, Jews and other ethnic minorities.

Lyons complained that Hollywood and the media have fostered a false image of Klan members as gun-toting, violence-prone bigots who pepper their speech with racist epithets and stereotyped slurs.

To his way of thinking, the Klan is just a fraternal organization of conservative-minded white Christian Americans -- armed for self-protection. Yet other Klan members are less guarded about their racial prejudices even as they seek to deny them.

A lot of people are running around out there making us look bad," complained one Groveton man who call anonymously at Lyon's behest one day to talk about Klan organizing in Virginia. He said his group shuns cross burnings because "everybody in the neighborhood gets together then and says 'poor ole nigger.'"

Or as a man known only as the Imperial Night Hawk put it at the Richmond Klan open house: "We're different. It's not my fault we're different -- let them sue the Lord."

John Drumheller, a heavy-set, tobacco-spitting Klan "Titan" who appears to be the caretaker for the Richmond building and lives in a tiny one-room shack behind it, looks to the Klan to preserve white Western civilization. He fetches a leaflet titled "The Kiss of Death" to support his argument that interracial marriage will destroy white culture.

But all the pronouncements about protecting white rights and society "is simply the bait to catch newcomers," warns Irwin Suall, fact-finding director for the Anti-Defamation League's national office in New York.

The Truth is that the Klan is a vicious hate group whose members are usually armed with big caliber and automatic weapons and will break the law to promote their racial and religious bigotry," Suall said. "It's true there's a certain mood in this country that's receptive to that sort of thinking, but the overwhelming majority of whites wouldn't touch the Klan with a 10-food pole."

In a dusty bookstore, tucked away near a tangle of freeways on the outskirts of New Orleans, a man who has had some measure of success in wooing Klan members stands transfixed in front of a television set, watching news reports of the Miami riots.

"Sure it makes me angry," David Duke said tersely. "We have a bunch of murderous people roaming the streets, and a lot of other people are just beasts down there dying."

Duke, "almost 30," is the muscular blond Grand Wizard and media personality of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of three major Klan groups that operate in sections of Virginia and Maryland. He vies for members with Robert Shelton, leader of the more secretive United Klans of America, headquartered in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Bill Wilkinson, whose Invisible Empire, Knights of the KKK, is based near Baton Rouge, La.

Duke functions as a public relations man and touts the "new Klan" in numerous television appearances, radio talk shows and newspaper interviews. It was his media blitz through Washington and Baltimore that first caught the attention of Bob Lyons.

Wilkinson's Klan outfit is more confrontational. The swarthy 37-year-old Imperial Wizard is apt to turn up on the heels of racial disturbances or stage public KKK rallies like the one his followers have organized in Frederick County later this month.

Though the two men had a clash of egos and a falling out ever organizing tactics, their views are much the same. It's just that Duke delivers his message with a kind of fraternity boy charm while Wilkinson's occasional bursts of anger betray his street-fighting approach to race relations.

"I do prefer the white race," says Duke, who once donned a Nazi uniform "as a stunt" for a college demonstration and keeps anti-Semitic literature at his Klan office. "And frankly, I do believe white people are best suited to our type of culture."

Duke's office is stocked with Klan paraphernalia, including jewelry, a huge cross ready for ritualistic lighting and white Frisbees emblazoned with the admonition that "Racial Purity Is America's Security." He is eager to hand out copies of his various interviews, as well as issues of the Crusader, a Klan publication that features "racialist" crossword puzzles, articles calling the Jewish holocaust a hoax and ads selling Klan bumper stickers, T-shirts and a mace-like anticrime spray called "Klan Guard."

Bill Wilkinson won't meet reporters at his Klan office. He says it's in a transitional mess and suggests meeting for dinner at a fancy French restaurant. He, too, has Miami on his mind and, like Duke, knows how to exploit the rioting there to his advantage.

"One call came in today from a businessman in Pompano, Fla., who was worried because he lives only 40 miles away from it," Wilkinson said. "But I told him he's only as far away from it as his nearest black neighborhood."

Wilkinson, Duke and Shelton -- who accuses his two rivals of being hired by the federal government to help discredit the Klan -- all make regular recruiting trips around the country, with mixed success.They each expect to be back in the Maryland and Virgina area this summer, a prime season for the outdoor rallies the Klan is fond of holding.

"There's going to be a race war in this country because white people are fed up to here," says Wilkinson, jerking his hand to his hairline. "My people are willing to do whatever I say, and that's not a threat. I have to restrain them."

The sight of a Klan hangout, operating so brazenly in the former capital of the Confederacy, shocked Anti-Defamation League and NAACP officials in Richmond. Its discovery also stunned black neighbors.

"I saw the symbol and I almost fainted," said one black woman. She has grown increasingly edgy now that more and more cars are parking outside the windowless, barn-like building to attend night Klan meetings.

"They are very radically against everything that we are," she said, adding bitterly that her family would never have bought into the block if the previous owners who were white had mentioned the presence of the Klan. "Now, every five minutes I'm looking out to make sure my son is not on their property."

Jack Gravely, executive secretary of the NAACP in Virginia, says the best defense against the "racist attitudes and midget mentality" of the Klan is to prosecute its members whenever they break the law. Another defense, he and others argue, is to stop writing about the Klan or exaggerating its influence.

The League's Olshansky agrees, warning that for every 10 people who read about the Klan and find the organization repulsive, there may be one person "out there" who will view the Klan as a support group.

"If you perceive things are happening to you that you are beyond your control, the Klan may be attractive," says Olshansky. "It becomes like a club, with patriotic and religious trappings. White rights becomes a draw -- you can feel superior to someone else, you can even wear little costumes. And, more importantly, people can be afraid of you."

Despite couching racist sentiments in anticommunist and antigovernment appeals, Olshansky says the Klan has not had all that much success at organizing in Virginia. He estimates Klan membership in the state to be about 200, with activities centered largely in the Northern Neck and Tidewater areas, where Klan demonstrations aboard a Navy ship last Labor Day led to a Klan rally and counter-protest in Virginia Beach.

The Navy ordered crewmen to stay away from the rally, but the city councils in Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Tidewater City all voted down resolutions denouncing Klan activity.

In contrast, the 1980 Maryland legislature doubled the penalty for burning religious symbols after robed marauders burned a cross on the lawn of a black church in Largo in January.

Lyons, who belongs to one of the few Klan groups that will admit Catholics like himself, says those kinds of restrictions don't hinder Klan recruitment. While withholding specific figures, he says the Klan has members throughout the region, including federal workers and military personnel who he says usually shy away from the Klan for fear of losing their jobs.

The Klan builds membership, Lyons said, "by circulating among our friends first. If they express antagonism about money going to Israel or reverse job discrimination, you're halfway there. Then, it's just a simple matter of giving them a Klan calling card."

Arguing that "these guys make their living off the Klan," the Anti-Defamation League discounts any large membership claims as an attempt to attract more recruits. But officials say it would be wrong to treat the Klan as innocuous just as it would be naive to expect the country's race problems to be resolved in the near future.

"We've made some real headway, but we've got a long way to go," counseled one ADL spokesman.

When the hate note was left on the door, Montgomery County's Freda Mauldin was one of the white neighbors who hurried to the tiny black church to worship with the congregation. She remembers meeting an elderly black woman, "a little grandmother-type," who lived nearby and was having trouble sleeping because she was afraid the vandals would come back.

"On the surface, it's just a note," Mauldin says, "but you can't measure the fear it causes."