Many of Olof Palme's supporters, a political opponent acknowledged recently in Stockholm, considered him "Sweden's gift to the world," the man who personified the image he wanted to give his country as a neutral, humanitarian and caring nation.

There were were occasional doubts about his role at home -- his sometimes apparently low level of interest in more lackluster domestic issues and his ability to deal with them as Sweden's prime minister for nearly a dozen years.

Contentious and acid-tongued, quick-witted and endlessly energetic, Palme often seemed to make up for failing internal policies with fancy footwork and a talent for fascinating an electoral majority while driving the opposing minority to near distraction.

While serving as prime minister from 1969 to 1976, he presided over the expansion of Sweden as a folkhemmet, the peoples' home -- a society based on values such as social justice, security and solidarity that also established the biggest public sector in the western world.

Defeated in 1976 by a three-party center right coalition, he returned with his Social Democratic Labor Party in 1982, and was soon faced with the monumental price tag for his government's philosophy, a national debt that forced him into a widely unpopular devaluation of the Swedish krona. His most recent victory, in a bitterly fought election last year, was a narrow one.

But following his assassination last night in Stockholm, Palme is likely to be remembered by his own people less for what he did inside Sweden than for a style of leadership and promotion of global causes that made him a prominent international figure far beyond his country's shores.

From his outspoken denunciation of U.S. policy, first in Vietnam and later in Central America, to his promotion of world disarmament and a redistribution of global wealth, Palme was a statesman of the moderate left.

To his opposition at home, Palme said in an interview last year, he was known as "the Jane Fonda of Swedish politics." Abroad, he was sometimes called worse than that. The United States administration was livid when he marched alongside the North Vietnamese ambassador in a 1968 parade in Stockholm. When he publicly denounced the 1972 American bombing of North Vietnam, Washington recalled its ambassador, and relations went into a two-year deep freeze.

While he frequently was charged with being "soft on communism," it was not a charge that seemed to move many Swedes. Relations with the nearby Soviet Union, Palme said last year, are Sweden's principal foreign policy problem. "On the one hand, we need to be extremely tough with the Soviets. But we have to live with them."

Far from being anti-American, Palme was a self-described product of American culture. He spent a year as a scholarship student at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, graduating in 1948. He was fluent in several languages, English among them, and equally adept at delivering a speech in Spanish as conducting a news conference in French or German.

Among his international undertakings, Palme served as chairman of the independent commission on disarmament and security, and as a member of West German former chancellor Willy Brandt's internattional commission that studied relations between the industrialized and developing countries. He headed another commission, with former secretary of state Cyrus R. Vance and Soviet adviser Georgi Arbatov among its members, that called for bans on battlefield nuclear weapons and for zones free of chemical and nuclear weapons.

Palme also was the first U.N. emissary sent to the Persian Gulf to try to stop the Iranian-Iraqi war in November, 1980, one of the many international tasks he undertook during his years out of office.

Although he said he decided at an early age to devote his life to the cause of social justice, Palme came from the wealthy class, born on Jan. 30, 1927. In 1952, he joined the Social Democrats, who have ruled Sweden for 48 of the past 56 years. In 1954, he became private secretary to the party's longtime prime minister, Tage Erlander. Elected to parliament in 1956, he joined Erlander's Cabinet in 1963.

As minister of education from 1967 to 1969, Palme demonstrated against the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia as well as against the U.S. war in Vietnam. He gained attention for a brief, fully clothed appearance in a Swedish-made pornographic film, "I Am Curious (Yellow)."

When Erlander retired in October 1969, Palme succeeded him without a general election, becoming at age 42 the youngest government leader in Europe. From that point, with only one break out of power, he was the single dominating figure in Swedish politics.

Although he had two regular bodyguards, Palme took great pleasure in walking, often unaccompanied, through Stockholm. A man of small stature, with startlingly blue eyes and a thick shock of dark blond hair, he seemed lost behind his desk in the cavernous prime ministerial office.

But Palme made up in energy and personal vibrancy what he lacked in physical presence. He made a point of being as informal as possible with visitors -- making coffee on his office hot plate, answering his own telephone, yelling affectionate abuse at his secretary in the next room and a hearty hello to anyone who happened to be walking past his open door.

Known as a politician who, especially in his early days, preferred confrontation to conciliation, Palme's buoyant manner could sometimes turn abruptly to rage. He was widely known for intemperate remarks and flying off the handle.

"I only get angry two or three times a year," he protested recently. "Sometimes," he said of his political opponents, "they do manage to provoke me."