Democrats, liberals and citizens' advocacy groups have hit on an administration figure whose name has inspired, in just a few months, millions of dollars in contributions and tens of thousands of new members -- Edwin Meese III.

Since this discovery, millions of fund-raising letters have been mailed and full-page newspaper ads have been purchased that prominently feature the attorney general. The response is "better than usual -- 20 percent better, 30 percent better," said Roger Craver, a direct-mail specialist who has helped produce some of the appeals.

"You can't lay a glove on Ronald Reagan," Craver said. "With him, it's morning again in America. With Meese, it's 'The Twilight Zone.' "

Not since James G. Watt was secretary of the interior has a Reagan administration figure so galvanized the opposition. "Ed Meese is the James Watt of the Constitution," said Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Ed Meese is not the radical his liberal critics paint him to be," answered Terry Eastland, the Justice Department's public affairs director. "Distortions and caricatures of a conservative's position are employed to tease money from liberal pockets. The real threat to the country comes from those who are ostensibly liberal who wish to censor the public debate about fundamental issues."

But for the liberal groups, Meese has become the equivalent of Reagan without the Teflon, a man whose public image seems to automatically conjure up fears.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll in March rated Meese as the most unpopular administration official of those included in the survey. He was the only one whose unfavorable numbers exceeded his favorable. Twenty-two percent gave him a favorable rating; 29 percent, unfavorable; and 49 percent said they didn't know.

"Edwin Meese may become our next U.S. Supreme Court Justice," warns a letter mailed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to potential supporters. The attorney general is described as "only a heartbeat away" from appointment to the high bench. His views are called "dogmatic" and "frightening," in "opposition to equality and justice for all Americans." And he is depicted as a tool of "right-wingers" like Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), having passed their "politically inspired 'litmus test.' "

By electing a Democratic Senate, however, the threat to the "independence of the federal judiciary" can be rebuffed. The letter is signed by Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), the DSCC chairman.

"It's performing above the norm, better than average," said David Johnson, the DSCC executive director. "We're always looking around for issues that will motivate Democratic givers. This appears to be one of them . . . . We're likely to continue to use the package."

Meese's role in selecting the federal judiciary has also been profitably mined by People for the American Way, an advocacy group.

" . . . The Far Right leadership is taking no chances," reads a People for the American Way fund-raising letter. "In the next four years they not only have a crack at reshaping the Supreme Court but also the opportunity to fill some 400 judicial seats -- well over half the 744 active federal judges in existence."

And the ringleader of these "radical elements" who are "perverting one of the key components of our system of checks and balances" is "Ed Meese and his Justice Department."

Four million of the letters flooded the mail in April. "It was better than we expected," said Arthur Kropp, the group's vice president. The result, he said, was more than 35,000 new members and "more money than expected."

In March, People for the American Way conducted a poll of its 250,000 members, asking them to name "individuals who represent a threat to the principles of civil liberties, religious tolerance and separation of church and state." Meese was rated as a "major threat," just below the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Helms, according to Kropp.

"OK," began a newspaper ad placed last month by People for the American Way in The New York Times and USA Today, "for 10 minutes, you're Ed Meese, the attorney general of the United States. Would you choose these men to be federal judges?"

Below this headline appeared pictures of Daniel Manion, a nominee for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Illinois, and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, whose nomination to the U.S. District Court in Alabama was defeated in the Senate on Thursday -- "two prime examples of Ed Meese's attempt to fill the courts with unqualified extremists."

Another group that has mentioned the name "Meese" and summoned forth a tidal wave of contributions is the ACLU. "Our members have been responding pretty well since this administration took over," Glasser said. "But the mailings in which we have used Meese's statements and actions have done very well." He noted that "Meese bears a special relationship to the ACLU because he called us 'the criminals' lobby.' "

The attorney general's name-calling, however, was not the proximate cause of mass generosity toward the ACLU. Rather, it was his July 9, 1985, speech to the American Bar Association's House of Delegates, in which he said that "nowhere else has the principle of federalism been dealt so politically violent and constitutionally suspect a blow as by the theory of incorporation," referring to court rulings that the Bill of Rights applies to the states as well as the federal government. He also said that the Constitution should be interpreted only in the light of the "original intention" of the framers.

Meese's reference to the Bill of Rights was in his printed text, but was not spoken. However, civil libertarians seized on it.

The speech also provoked public rebukes from Supreme Court Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and John Paul Stevens.

"Ever since that time," Glasser said, "Meese has emerged as the personification of the administration's hostility toward the Bill of Rights. It's pretty ominous for people who believe in civil liberties to have someone doing what he does and saying what he does. He seems to incur some of the hostility that Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy used to."

The Reagan administration is "hostile to the idea of the Bill of Rights itself," Glasser wrote in a Sept. 20 letter to potential givers. The "spearhead" of the "attacks" on the Bill of Rights is "Edwin Meese, who during his first few months in office has confirmed our worst fears."

In a letter sent out in March, Glasser wrote: "Unlike Jerry Falwell, Attorney General Meese occupies a position of substantial legal and political power. And, to put it bluntly, Edwin Meese poses a far greater threat to civil liberties than a dozen Falwells ever could."

This direct-mail campaign, according to Glasser, is "an attempt to take advantage of the explicitness of Meese's views and actions. It's gone very well."

But Meese's inactions have also prompted campaigns using his name. In a recent letter to contributors, Planned Parenthood focused on Meese for what it said was the federal failure to investigate bombings against Planned Parenthood clinics.

"It is a national tragedy that our federal government, so quick to recognize and defend against political terrorism in the Middle East and Europe, has refused to acknowledge this domestic form of terrorism," wrote Faye Wattleton, Planned Parenthood president. Enclosed with the letter was a postcard demanding action, addressed to Meese.

"A lot of the crystallization around Meese occurs because of his inaction on women's rights and civil rights," said Craver, who helped design the Planned Parenthood package.

Reagan's name rarely appears in these calls to halt administration policy. There is a direct relationship between the avoidance of Reagan and the targeting of Meese. The authors of the anti-Meese ads and letters say they believe that the public disconnects Reagan's sunny persona from many of his policies.

"When we would write the same letter focusing on Reagan," Glasser said, "you'd always get a smattering of mail from people saying they didn't feel he was responsible for this, even letters from ACLU members."

"Just as Reagan seems to escape responsibility for some of his positions, Meese does not," Glasser said. "He is credible as an enemy. He projects a kind of ominousness. Reagan is unfailingly amiable. Meese is cruder, more blunt, more explicit."