"A lot of people were struck on the road to Damascus," said Edwin J. Feulner Jr., president of the Heritage Foundation. But Feulner himself is no convert. He dates his adherence to the conservative faith to his early intellectual awakening in 1959, his freshman year in college.

In a history course at Regis College in Colorado, he read Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" and Eric Kuehnelt-Leddihn's "Liberty or Equality." After turning the last page, he said in an interview, his mind was set in a pattern that would never waver. Thus began a career that has covered most of the stations of the conservative cross.

Feulner's appetite for conservative literature prompted him to subscribe to the National Review, William F. Buckley Jr.'s journal, where he noticed an advertisement for the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, a conservative student group (now known as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute). He joined, making connections that would serve him well over the years.

A year after gaining an MBA degree from the Wharton School in 1964, he attended the London School of Economics, where his studies were underwritten by a Richard Weaver fellowship, an ISI program. And, while he did graduate work from 1965 to 1968 at Georgetown University, his roommate was another ISI member, John F. Lehman Jr., now the secretary of the Navy. He got his PhD in 1981 from Edinburgh University, writing a dissertation on the history of the Republican Study Committee, a group he founded.

Three years after conservatives set up the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) at Georgetown in 1962, Feulner received another fellowship, this one from a program run by Richard V. Allen, another ISI member, later and briefly to serve as President Reagan's national security affairs adviser. Then, through Allen, Feulner became a Hoover Institution fellow, where he worked as a policy analyst for Melvin R. Laird, then head of the House Republican Conference.

Laird was a catalyst in the creation of the conservative intellectual establishment. The presidents of the American Enterprise Institute (William Baroody Jr.), Georgetown's CSIS (David Abshire, now ambassdor to NATO) and the Heritage Foundation (Feulner) all served as his assistants.

Laird was especially close to AEI, the first conservative think tank in Washington, an attachment formed in the days of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, when AEI acted as Goldwater's brain trust. Laird helped AEI raise millions and arranged for former president Gerald R. Ford to become a fellow, thereby boosting its respectability. This legitimacy was extended to the ideas AEI promoted, ideas once dismissed as marginal.

Yesterday's radicals became today's moderates. Ford's presence was one of the factors pushing AEI's image toward the center, a move that created room on the spectrum for more militant conservatives. If AEI were "moderate," what was "radical"?

"We found a niche in the market that was empty," Feulner said, describing the origins of the Heritage Foundation. After he left Laird's staff, he joined that of Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.), a pre-Reagan conservative idol and, incidentally, an ISI member. In this position, Feulner founded and became executive director of the Republican Study Committee, a policy research group for conservative House members. It was a forerunner of Heritage. In the meantime, Joseph Coors, the brewery tycoon, was looking for new ways to propagate conservatism. With his money, Feulner and another Capitol Hill aide, Paul Weyrich, founded Heritage in 1973. Weyrich eventually left to lead New Right political action committees. And Feulner became president of Heritage.

On Oct. 3, 1983, at Heritage's 10th anniversary banquet, Reagan declared: "Historians who seek the real meaning of events in the latter part of the 20th century must look back on gatherings such as this."

By 1984, Heritage had a budget of $10,687,000 -- the biggest of any think tank in Washington, left or right. The foundation maintains a staff of mostly young analysts who produce rapid-fire studies on subjects ranging from tax reform to South Africa, circulated instantaneously within the administration, Congress and the news media.

Heritage has also developed a network of conservative scholars, on tap for expertise. And then Heritage seeks government jobs for conservatives. When some of the most prominent leave it also acts as a haven -- the think tank as Taiwan.

"If an entrepreneur markets what people want, he will be successful," Feulner said. "That's what it's all about."