LONDON, JUNE 8 -- God sent Margaret Thatcher "from heaven" to care for this country and restore its place in the world, British tycoon Lord Forte said Saturday when the prime minister turned up to open his newest project, a service station on London's M25 beltway.

An alternative view of Thatcher came in a Labor Party campaign advertisement last week lambasting the prime minister's policies on health care. Next to a human heart crudely sculpted out of granite lay a chisel. Thatcher, the text read, "has a heart problem."

The fact that both views are widely held here is evidence of the controversial nature of the woman who has governed Britain for the past eight years. Thatcher has argued that policies, not personalities, should be the focus of the election on Thursday.

"They are trying to prevent the real issues being discussed," she responded last week to Labor's charge that she is "autocratic" and surrounded by sycophants. But Thatcher and the collection of attitudes and initiatives known as Thatcherism are increasingly what her Conservative Party is all about. Writ large, it is a blunt, no-nonsense style that brooks little disagreement with her vision of Britain as a "property-owning democracy."

Based on a system of "popular capitalism," it is a country more like the United States than what Britain has been since World War II -- a somewhat sluggish, relatively benign land where the state plays a significant role as public conscience and provider, and collective action is valued above private enterprise. {Related story on Page D1.}

In practice, it has meant the selling of state-owned enterprises to those who can buy the shares, the sale of public housing to its occupants, curbs on trade union power, tax cuts and the belief that government should spend only what it takes in.

Thatcher's opponents, both Labor and the third party, Alliance, charge that her government has divided Britain as never before into two camps composed of the haves and have-nots.

But the way Thatcher sees it, the benefits of her programs will filter down to the bottom if she is given a few more years to complete what she has begun. She is, as she said in a campaign appearance last week, "appalled" at the idea that Labor has even the slightest chance of replacing her and possibly reversing all she has done.

Based on a series of polls that have shown her support relatively steady at about 43 percent of the electorate -- enough to keep her 8 to 10 percentage points ahead of Labor -- her ouster does not seem likely.

If she wins re-election, Thatcher, 61, will be the only person ever to have won three consecutive terms here. Early in a third term, she would become the longest serving prime minister in modern British history. Hinting that she might even go for a fourth term, she shows no sign of flagging.

Several of her advisers, and reportedly Thatcher herself, believe that her campaign this time has been outclassed by that of Labor and its leader, Neil Kinnock. In part because of security concerns, Thatcher's appearances have been largely confined to tours of prosperous factories, politely enthusiastic gatherings of the party faithful and staged encounters with selected voters.

Opinion polls show that Labor's new professional campaign style -- taking whole chapters from the Conservatives' successful 1983 book emphasizing carefully planned photo opportunities and appearances on television -- has paid off, bringing Kinnock out of the popularity basement to at least a respectable second place that will likely enhance his prospects the next time around.

Whatever her perceived sins, or those of her campaign managers, Thatcher hardly needs rallies or glad-handing to get her message across. British voters have had a long time to observe her style and substance. It has become a truism here that, while Thatcher is not widely liked, she is respected and thought of as a leader both for her party and her country.

The stories of her brusque demeanor are legion. There was the time she told off former president Jimmy Carter during the 1979 economic summit, reportedly interrupting one of his more esoteric monologues to say, "We didn't come to hear about your problems."

Political columnist Simon Heffer of The Daily Telegraph recounts a 1983 campaign dinner at which a member of the audience tried to conduct a conversation in sign language with someone at the top table during a Thatcher speech. Stopping in the middle of her monologue, Thatcher confronted the man, who rose red-faced to his feet, mumbling that he hoped she didn't think he was being rude. "I do think you're very rude," the prime minister reportedly said. "Sit down."

Equally renowned are stories about the inner workings of the Cabinet, where she is reputed to tolerate little disagreement and from which she has over the years removed nearly everyone she considers too "wet" or insufficiently allied with her own "conviction" policies.

What her opponents consider Thatcher's stylistic defects often are just the flip side of what others cite as her attributes.

But the fact that Thatcher remains so far ahead is an indication of how steep a climb Kinnock has had to make to bring Labor and himself back to respectability after the party's disastrous 1983 defeat, of how much the public disapproves of Labor's defense policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and how compelling is Thatcher's leadership image.

Polls have shown that large portions of the public lack confidence in her policies on the key issues of unemployment, public health and education. While some of the items on her list of accomplishments over the past eight years -- particularly the curbing of union power, lower inflation, a strong defense and some aspects of privatization -- are widely approved of, whole segments of the country have so far been cut off from the "Thatcher revolution."

The electoral map of 650 Parliamentary constituencies starkly illustrates both her electoral strength and her weaknesses. Colored in by party, virtually all of the most prosperous part of England, south of Birmingham, is Tory blue, surrounding a small flash of Labor red in London's poorer sections.

Broad swaths of red cut across the industrial heartland in the north from Liverpool eastward and westward from Newcastle. Much of coal-mining area of southern Wales is red, as is a stretch across south-central Scotland from its biggest cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Those divisions conform closely to figures indicating the most disadvantaged parts of the country in terms of employment and income.

Thatcherism is more an ethos than a set of policies. Thatcher often describes her goals for Britain as the ultimate "morality," in which the right to make one's own money and spend it as one chooses and to be given the opportunity to select education and health care that are different from that offered by the state are the highest of virtues, and profitability and competitiveness should be the principal yardsticks for industry.

In a macroeconomic sense, the opposition maintains, jobs for the poor have been the price paid for lower inflation and tax incentives for the rich. The 6 1/2 years of steady economic growth heralded by Thatcher supporters have not affected Britain's growing underclass.

Although the Tories insist they have put more money than ever into the National Health Service, the reality described by many voters and health care professionals is a service that has been steadily declining. Those who can afford it have moved into Britain's expanding system of private health care and insurance.

But whatever discomfort Britain's newly expanded class of "haves" may feel about those who have not yet joined them appears to have been overcome by what may well be the ultimate achievement of Thatcherism. Described by Thatcher, it is the fact that "Britain is on the march" and once more a country to be reckoned with.