"WANTED: Public Enemy #1 of Clean Air and the Right to Breathe." The large black letters were emblazoned across the yellow leaflets and beneath was a mug shot of the square-jawed Democrat from Detroit, Rep. John D. Dingell.

The congressman, roused in the midst of a recent air pollution mark-up, was not amused. He demanded that the demonstrators with the leaflets be ousted by the Capitol Police. The youths, wearing surgical masks and T-shirts inscribed "Dirty Dingell," filed silently out of the hearing room.

John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is one of the most powerful members of Congress. His empire spans energy, health, environmental, transportation, securities and consumer legislation, but right now what is most on his mind is rewriting the Clean Air Act, a bit of legislation which affects every industry and city in the nation, every new automobile and most particularly the 16th District of Michigan.

"Big John," as his colleagues call the 26-year veteran, hails from Dearborn, headquarters of the Ford Motor Co. His wife, a member of the Fisher Body Co. family, works for General Motors. His district contains some 20 auto manufacturing and assembly plants as well as a host of steel, chemical and other factories.

A few weeks ago, Dingell pushed an administration-backed bill through his health subcommittee over the strenuous objections of subcommittee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). Dingell calls the bill, which would relax auto and factory pollution limits, a "balanced, reasonable approach to relieve industry's legitimate complaints." Environmentalists say it would "gut" the act, one of the landmark environmental laws of the 1970s.

The controversy, which pits the Reagan administration, major industries and some labor unions against environmentalists, the League of Women Voters and other labor unions, could become one of the bitterest fights of the 97th Congress. Not only are the issues intractable, but Dingell, with his ferocious drive and wily charm, arouses the emotions of his fellow members like few other legislators.

"John is the kind of guy who puts his arm around you and breaks a couple of ribs," says one associate.

Leading the opposition is the soft-spoken but politcally savvy Waxman, a four-term Los Angeles liberal, whose height of 5-foot-5, compared with Dingell's 6-foot-3, prompts colleagues jokingly to call them David and Goliath.

Waxman's strategy has been to delay the issue long enough so that it becomes entangled in election year politics. He would prefer no bill to Dingell's bill--if no bill passes current law continues--and he believes the closer the battle inches toward November, the more fearful politicians will become of being labeled as favoring "dirty air."

The clean air issue is "political dynamite," says Waxman, who complains that Dingell, by allying himself with the White House, has undercut fellow Democrats. "The Democratic Party ought to be standing up to Reagan on this issue like we did on taxes, Social Security, health and education," Waxman maintains.

Dingell's bill would give factories extensions up to 1993 to meet air quality health standards, increase the amount of gases cars may emit and allow more air pollution in national parks. These adjustments are necessary, he said, because the original pollution rules were unreasonable, and industry is suffering economically as a result.

Dingell and Waxman have fought politely through a year of public hearings and mark-up sessions, each always referring to the other as "the gentleman" while, at the same time, Dingell badgered Waxman's witnesses and Waxman, outnumbered on his subcommittee, forced a series of roll call votes to put Dingell and his allies on the record.

Now, as each side casts for votes among the 43 members of the full committee which began mark-up last week, Dingell is holding his famous tongue in check and his temper at bay. "Everybody's entitled to make an error, and I guess Henry's got a right to be wrong this time," he says of Waxman's rival bill which would make only minor changes in the act, while toughening acid rain and toxic pollutant measures.

What? So mild a statement from the man who, in a recent National Rifle Association movie, called federal firearm officials "a jackbooted group of fascists," who was quoted in Energy Daily last month describing Japanese auto makers as "the little yellow people"?

In an interview in his office, which is lined with stuffed wild animals he shot, Dingell laughs uproariously at the suggestion that he might break a few ribs as he wraps his arm around a colleague. "I've tried hard to be persuasive and I've had a few modest successes, but I don't remember breaking any ribs," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

But Dingell, a former prosecutor who succeeded his father in Congress, won't deny he loves a good scrap. Only last month he was having it out with Interior Secretary James G. Watt, leading his committee to vote Watt in contempt of Congress until the White House submitted certain documents.

On the other side of the Capitol, where the Clean Air Act is also in mark-up, senators, remembering protracted and painful conferences with the Michigander in years past, talk openly of crafting a bill capable of withstanding a Dingell onslaught.

In one famous incident in 1977, after weeks of wrangling over natural gas prices, Dingell was reported to have told Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) in a closed conference, that he could "shove his compromise up his a--," whereupon Domenici refused to be in the same room with Dingell and the conferees were summoned to the White House to make up.

"John is one of the toughest guys I know," said Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.), who opposes Dingell's bill. "He's relentless. He never gives you a break. You see him on the floor, he's always whispering in someone's ear about how a particular bill affects that guy's district."

Although Dingell was an early consumer advocate, favoring control of natural gas prices, his implacable opposition to airbags and his environmental record caused Ralph Nader to call him "a national menace . . . . Given his position, his power, his drive, his corporate allies, and his Machiavellian skill, Dingell can now be considered the No. 1 enemy of consumers on Capitol Hill," Nader wrote in a report last year.

Dingell, however, stresses his authorship of the landmark 1969 Environmental Policy Act and 1973 Endangered Species Act, and other conservation laws. Environmentalists credit him with these early victories, but won't forgive his recent stands pushing an Alaska lands bill backed by developers, and the Energy Mobilization Board, which would have waived pollution laws on critical energy projects.

Dingell said his complex pollution bill, cosponsored by Ohio Democrat Thomas A. Luken and North Carolina Republican James T. Broyhill, is a "good, strong clean air bill."

The 1970 and 1977 air laws were "written in great haste, without any really good scientific information," he added. "We knew the air was dirty, and we knew we had to clean it up. But we didn't understand the mechanics or the economics of the situation. It was simply raw political judgment."

Now, he said, the law imposes "hardships on industry. It is difficult to administer. Deadlines are running out and you are going to have shutdowns on new construction of industry and termination of federal money for highways, air and water pollution programs."

Waxman said Dingell's bill goes far beyond the "fine-tuning" necessary to eliminate red tape and other problems. It is a "radical weakening," he said, which would allow automakers to roll back standards they are already meeting and "substantially destroy any hope we have of improving our air quality in the foreseeable future."

Dingell and the 11 subcommittee members who backed his bill are dubbed the "dirty dozen" by the National Clean Air Coalition, a group of environmental and labor groups, who call his bill "a polluters wish list."

That doesn't bother Dingell. "I have observed the dirty dozen have done very well raising funds for their campaigns," he said drily.

Precisely the point, his opponents counter. "It is no accident that the 12 members who received the most contributions from the political action committees (PACs) of key industries affected by the legislation were the same 12 members who voted for the industry-supported Dingell-Luken bill," said Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer.

A Common Cause study of automobile, chemical, forest products, metals and mining, oil and gas, steel and utilities industries PACs during the 1980 election cycle found, for example, that they contributed $21,250 to Dingell and $900 to Waxman.

Industry lobbying on the bill, featuring such luminaries as John Quarles, former deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has been intense. Labor is split, with the building trades and United Auto Workers supporting Dingell and the Steelworkers and Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers backing Waxman.

Environmentalists are mounting a hardball grassroots campaign that has some legislators squirming. The League of Women Voters ran a newspaper ad in Luken's district entitled, "Dirty Air for Cincinnatians," contending that Luken's bill would "devastate" the Clean Air Act. In Kansas, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the league ran an ad about the mark-up votes entitled, "Congressman Bob Whittaker: Dirty Air 4, Clean Air O."

In a recent session of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is painstakingly working out a compromise on the bill, Domenici complained about environmentalists' attacks in the Albuquerque media. Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) responded sympathetically, "Whatever it is worth, I'm a veteran of the same kind of Mau Mau politics."

In such a charged political atmosphere, a jittery Congress may try to avoid facing the issue until after the election. Pollster Louis Harris told Waxman's subcommittee that the American people, by 80 to 17 percent, do not want any relaxation in air pollution.

"Clean air happens to be one of the sacred cows of the American people," he said, "and the suspicion is afoot that there are interests in the business community and among Republicans and some Democrats who want to keelhaul that legislation. And people are saying, 'Watch out. We'll have your hide if you do it.' "

Dingell is unimpressed. "What is the issue on which Democrats have traditionally won elections?" he asks. "Jobs."

Dingell says Harris's polls fail to ask whether people favor a law which would give them both clean air and more jobs, as he claims his bill would do. "I think you'll find when we get to the House floor there are a great number of people interested in employment," he said.

Some members may prefer not to test the question. Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., asked if the bill might be bottled up by Rules Committee Chairman Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), told reporters, "I won't be twisting his arm to get it out."