The day the Iran-contra affair blossomed into a full-blown scandal, Nov. 25, 1986, Alexander Meigs Haig Jr. telephoned White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan to offer some damage-control advice.

President Reagan should go before the American people in a televised speech, Haig said. He should take reponsibility for the scandal and announce mass firings of such misguided underlings as national security adviser John M. Poindexter and National Security Council aide Oliver L. North as well as "a couple of Cabinet officers" who publicly opposed the Iran initiative after the fact. And he should announce his refusal to appoint a special prosecutor or allow congressional hearings.

Reagan, Haig suggested, could tell the American people, "And if you don't like it, impeach me!"

Last month, as Haig recounted his advice in a speech to the Concord, N.H., Rotary Club, his chin jutted out in a pose of aggression, his voice turned up to full bluster.

"Now, that's what should have happened," he told the Rotarians over chicken and mashed potatoes at The Cat 'n Fiddle restaurant. "Instead, the president went along with a six-month orgy."

Retired four-star Army general, highly decorated veteran of two wars, as well as the Watergate scandal and, for 18 months, Reagan's volatile secretary of State, Haig, 63, is pursuing the Republican presidential nomination with customary self-confidence and zeal. He's also enjoying himself. "You bet I'm having fun," he says.

Haig inevitably is remembered as the man who told the world, "I'm in control here," after Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981. Now Haig is trying to replace that memory with the image of a cool-headed leader, sharing the wisdom of his unusual experience in government while deriding his rivals as "jerks" and launching verbal warheads at Vice President Bush.

Haig is incensed that one of Bush's sons recently read aloud to a campaign audience the Distinguished Flying Cross citation that Bush received as a young Navy pilot after being shot down over the Pacific during World War II.

"Anybody who has to spend all his time demonstrating his manhood has somehow got to know he ain't got it," Haig said recently. A few days later, he returned to that theme. "If I were to have someone get out and read my citations it would take about three hours, and I tell you, it would be far more impressive than getting shot down. These things offend men."

Haig, who received the Distinguished Service Cross for his exploits commanding a batallion in Vietnam, alternately embraces and dismisses the suggestion that he's in the race mostly to stop Bush. At times, he insists he's really running to be president.

"I suppose at this stage, I can think of nothing better to do with my life, if it's doable," Haig said. "It's not that I have an insatiable thirst for it. On the other hand, I've seen enough of it, I'm subjectively confident that I probably know more about it than any other candidate."Haig as Center of Universe

He is, according to those who have known him, a man of dizzying complexity -- so much so that it is hard to believe that they are describing a single person: a dedicated public servant; a keen strategic theorist; a charismatic leader; a loyal friend. Or else an ambitious egomaniac; a shallow, unoriginal thinker; a ruthless bureaucratic infighter; a bully and a boor. In short, Haig seems larger than life.

"He's a man of action," said his wife, Patricia, whose father, Gen. Alonzo Fox, Lt. Haig briefly served as an aide-de-camp in Formosa (now Taiwan). "He doesn't sit back and contemplate."

"He always seemed to have a terribly deep, romantic image of himself," said novelist Lucian V. Truscott IV, scion of a distinguished military family and a cadet at West Point in 1968, when Col. Haig was the academy's deputy commandant. "It was part of his obsession with his own appearance, always wearing tailor-made uniforms. He would have liked to think that he was the sun and that everybody revolved around him."

"I would not call Al a 'straight arrow,' which has a special meaning among the military," said former undersecretary of defense Robert W. Komer, who worked closely with Haig when the general was supreme commander of NATO in the Carter administration. "I would call Al a shrewd operator."

"He was a very fragile fellow in a lot of ways, but he got this appearance of toughness and macho," said a man who served under Haig when he was secretary of state. "He always used to say, with distressing frequency, that a particular event or a particular problem was or was not 'a test of our manhood.' "

The presidency, in some ways, would seem a logical career move for this West Point graduate who has spent four decades striving onward and upward, never in the same job for long. After all, as President Richard M. Nixon's chief of staff during the waning days of Watergate, he was, by most accounts, de facto president. But in other ways, the current Haig campaign is a strange adventure, indeed.

"I always saw him as the quintessential bureaucratic operator in smoke-filled rooms," said Haig biographer and onetime colleague Roger Morris, a member of Henry A. Kissinger's National Security Council staff when Haig was Kissinger's military aide in the Nixon White House. "I certainly don't see him as someone who plunges into bowling alleys to ask people for their votes."

Last month at the Stadium Bowling Alley in Manchester, N.H., Haig approached this task like a field commander intent on showing the troops that he is a regular guy. The troops had other ideas.

"The only reason I want to shake your hand, general," a bowler informed Haig, "is that someone just got a strike after shaking your hand, and maybe it'll bring me some luck."

The general, smiling fixedly, pressed on through the Monday night bowling league crowd.

"Shake a leg for Haig," he said, repeating one of his signature lines with an antic gleam in his eye. Without prompting he continued, "Haig and Haig is the real McCoy. Beware of Dole and Dole, it's just watered-down pineapple juice. And above all, don't get Bush-whacked."

"Haig & Haig!" exclaimed a red-faced man. "That's good stuff!"

A middle-aged woman named Olive LeClair complained to Haig about her husband's Air Force retirement benefits.

"Look, you don't have to tell me, I'm on retirement myself," Haig said with a shrug, not mentioning that he's also a millionaire with a lucrative international consulting business.

June Dawson told Haig that she was so confused by the gaggle of candidates, she couldn't figure out whom to support. "I guess I'll vote for the last guy I see."

Haig drew close. "They're all jerks," he muttered.

Dawson shrieked with laughter.

"He has a very good sense of humor, particularly a sense of the absurd," said Haig's longtime speechwriter, Harvey Sicherman, recalling one of Haig's early forums with Foreign Service professionals in January 1981.

The new secretary of state told the group that day, "You may have heard around town that I am intolerant of other people's suggestions. That's not true. I insist that the people who work for me tell me what's on their minds, even if it costs them their jobs."

In those days, Haig was determined to be the "vicar" of American foreign policy.

He had just spent a year in the executive suite of United Technologies, being groomed to run the multibillion-dollar defense contracting company, had been uniformly praised in his four-year tour as "SACEUR" (Strategic Allied Commander Europe) and had flirted with running for president.

"I think the SACEUR experience had a profound effect on him," a former associate of Haig's said. "It is a position that, since {Gen. Dwight D.} Eisenhower, has been almost deified in Europe, because the SACEUR is the human linchpin of peace in Europe. He is virtually worshipped, and waited on hand and foot.

"If you do that for four or five years, and you have all these throngs paying you homage, you begin to think, 'Gee whiz, I must be a pretty good guy.' . . . . I think he believed that he could return like Eisenhower, and be received by his country as a hero. Well, Americans don't have all that much to do with SACEUR. To them it's just so much acronymic gibberish."

As the Reagan administration began to organize itself after the 1980 election, Haig was the first choice for secretary of state of the successful California businessmen who made up Reagan's influential "kitchen cabinet." Haig acknowledges that he probably offended Nancy Reagan, whom he refers to as "Mama," when he insisted on seeing Ronald Reagan alone at Rancho del Cielo before Haig was nominated to get an unfiltered view of the president-elect. "I wasn't sure who had the brains," Haig recalled. In any case, the president-elect duly picked him to head the State Department.

Haig's view of the world meshed well with Reagan's: Its central thesis was the primacy of the mortal struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, and every other policy question, whether it concerned South Africa or Central America, flowed from this "strategic" reality.

"He thinks of everything in Cold War terms," said Roger Morris. "He's a '57 Chevy in a world of '88 Hondas."

Haig was confirmed after five days of Senate hearings in which he was at pains to defend his role in the Nixon White House and answer questions about the illegal wiretapping of White House staff aides and journalists, and about whether a "deal" existed with President Gerald R. Ford to pardon Nixon, his predecessor who was disgraced by the Watergate scandal.

From the outset Haig was determined to be Reagan's chief adviser, formulator and coordinator for international relations. On Inauguration Day, he offered for Reagan's signature a National Security Decision Memorandum granting him that formal authority.

"We're going to strip them of their underwear before they even realize that their belt's been unbuckled," a former State Department official recalled Haig saying about his potential rivals in the White House.

But it was not to be. Reagan never signed the memo.

"We were dressed in our inaugural clothing when Al proferred his document," recalled Richard V. Allen, who was Reagan's first national security adviser. "I knew it would never see the light of day, the way it was written. Issues don't get solved that way with the Reagan team."

"It may have had something to do with his training," said a fellow Army general who knows Haig well. "One of the first military orders for a sentry on duty is, 'Take charge of this post and all government property on view.' For Al, it may have been 'Take charge of this vicarship and all property on view.' "

"He's an immensely talented guy, immensely likable and obviously capable," Allen added. "But Al never really came to understand Ronald Reagan. He never really quite understood quite how to create the chemistry."

It was astonishing to many that Haig, schooled in the arts of bureaucratic war by no less a practitioner than Kissinger, who had been national security adviser and secretary of state under Nixon, could not prevail over his competitors in the administration.

From the beginning, he fought openly with such rivals as Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Allen and the White House "troika" (chief of staff James A. Baker III, counselor Edwin Meese III and deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver) over major matters such as lifting the Soviet grain embargo, the sale of AWACS planes to the Saudis and who should be in charge of "crisis management" (Reagan picked Vice President Bush).

Today Haig calls Baker, who ran Bush's 1980 presidential campaign and now is secretary of the Treasury, the vice president's "agent provocateur" who tailored each decision to fit Bush's political ambitions.

Haig and the White House also tangled over trifles such as which plane he could use on his failed mission of shuttle diplomacy between London and Buenos Aires during the Falkland Islands dispute that resulted in war. A bare two months into the new administration, his stock fell with the "I'm in control" episode, in which he went on live television from the White House briefing room to reassure the nation after the assassination attempt on Reagan, a performance that was widely criticized as having the opposite effect.

"He was raised in a very authoritarian, hierarchical system," said a former Reagan administration associate who worked closely with Haig. "And our political process is a very pluralistic, horizontal one. He never understood the importance of evoking consensus."

"At Cabinet meetings, he seemed almost like a gunfighter in a hostile saloon," another White House official said.

Haig threatened repeatedly to resign. In June 1982, Reagan accepted.

"I never should have taken the job," said Haig, whose memoirs, "Caveat," portray a disengaged Reagan in the thrall of foreign policy amateurs.

In the State Department, Haig was known for his mercurial management style. "He expected people to be superhuman," recalled a former assistant secretary of state, "including himself."

"He was, in the beginning, reasonably relaxed and comfortable and confident," recalled another member of Haig's team. "But then things began to go downhill, and he became progressively more apprehensive, fearful and somewhat megalomaniacal. He became susceptible to flattery and sycophancy."

The former Haig associate recalled that "once he announced at a morning staff meeting, after some success or other, that he would go down in the history of the republic as one of the greatest secretaries of State. There was an embarrassed silence. {U.S. Information Agency Director} Charlie Wick saved the day. He said, 'It's only fair. To the vicar belongs the spoils.' "Call Came in Summer of 1973

Haig had actually reached the zenith of his power a decade before, during the final 14 months of the Nixon administration. As White House chief of staff, he virtually ran the government while the president grappled with Watergate and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned in the face of a no contest plea to a charge of income tax evasion. Haig said he never wanted the job, but was compelled to obey his commander in chief when the call came in the summer of 1973.

"I was vice chief of staff of the Army," Haig recalled, "and clearly would have been chief of staff and possibly chairman of the Joint Chiefs {of Staff}. It was one of the most painful things that I ever had to do with my life."

Haig, who once blamed a suspicious erasure in the Watergate tape recordings on a "sinister force," played an active role in Nixon's defense, including the "Saturday Night Massacre," in which the attorney general and his deputy quit in protest after Haig ordered them on behalf of Nixon to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. But Haig was widely credited with engineering Nixon's resignation in August 1974 when it became clear that otherwise he would be impeached and removed.

"To be sure, nobody survives in the rough and tumble of White House politics -- especially of the Nixon White House -- without a good measure of ruthlessness," Kissinger wrote of Haig in his memoirs. He plucked the 44-year-old colonel out of West Point on the recommendation of Joseph A. Califano and Robert S. McNamara, whom Haig had served in the Pentagon during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. "I could not help noticing that Haig was implacable in squeezing to the sidelines potential competitors for my attention."

At the same time, "he was assiduously establishing his own personal relationship with first {Nixon chief of staff H.R.} Haldeman and {aide John D.} Ehrlichman, then with Nixon," Kissinger wrote. "I did not doubt that they considered him more of a loyalist than me . . . . Yet this is no more than saying that I recognized Haig as formidable."

"To this day the relationship remains very complicated," Morris said. "Haig always felt intrinsically superior to Henry. He was a man of much more poise and grace, and better looking. The old joke on the NSC was that Haig was sort of kept around to be the all-American colonel to testify at Henry's treason trial."

Kissinger, meanwhile, abused his military assistant "a little bit like the Indian army officer who just keeps beating his gunbearer," another NSC staff aide recalled. Haig was soon Kissinger's No. 1 deputy, charged with such sensitive missions as meeting secretly with President Nguyen Van Thieu over the American disengagement from South Vietnam. To the chagrin of fellow officers, Haig was promoted from colonel to four-star general in an unprecedented four years.

Yet Haig was not beyond irreverent speculation about his sponsors. He joked about their sexual foibles, Morris recalled. "It was crude; it was just plain primitive," Morris said. "But you could have dinner with Al and enjoy it. In psychological terms, it was a peculiarly twisted bunch of people {on Kissinger's staff}, but he was one of the more refreshingly normal guys. On the other hand . . . he could be somewhat frightening in his aggressiveness."

"He had that bulldog jaw and tough demeanor," said the other NSC staff aide. "A couple of times we'd go out and play touch football and he'd kill you. It was not a game. It was war."'I Had to Struggle'

Haig's life could seem to have been a relentless, smooth climb, but that, he insists, was not the case. "I had to struggle," Haig said of his fatherless youth in the well-heeled enclave of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., where he and his family were dependent on a rich uncle to pay for their too-grand house. Unlike his friends, Haig recalled somberly, he did not receive an allowance or own a car, was forced to attend public school and take a job during school holidays.

"A lot of that was to enable me to live in the style to which I would like to be accustomed," Haig said, "to do the things the other guys were doing. And it's true, it's sometimes worse to be in an environment like that."

Alexander Haig Sr. had been a prominent lawyer when he died of cancer at age 38. His wife, Regina, the son recalled, "was the kind of woman who could have remarried in 30 seconds. She looked like a Hollywood movie star. She was quite young and she dedicated the remainder of her life to educating her children."

Haig had been an indifferent student in high school, a fact that almost prevented him from achieving his life's ambition, a West Point commission.

"Alec was always kind of romanticizing that they would be after him," said his younger brother, Frank, a Jesuit priest and physicist. "But that was just not the case."

"Mother had to beat the bushes for Alec," said his older sister, Regina Meredith, a lawyer, describing the exertions expended to get him into West Point. "I remember her coming back from meetings with different congressmen in the Philadelphia area and so depressed. It took some doing."

After a year at Notre Dame, Haig was finally admitted into the elite ranks of the U.S. Military Academy, where "he had a little trouble adjusting to the discipline," his classmate, Perry Gainey, recalled. "Al had grown up without a father. Al liked to play."

Six months' confinement to his room and 132 hours of punishment period -- "I watched him go through all that without a single complaint," Gainey said -- turned Haig into a model cadet.

By 1948, a year after Haig's graduation in the bottom half of his class, he was working in the headquarters of Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur, the American overlord of occupied Japan after World War II. It was here, as a young second lieutenant, that he got his first look at power, and later his first taste of combat, as an aide to MacArthur's chief of staff in the Korean war.

Haig has often been drawn into trouble and conflict ("That's why they called me 'magnet ass' when I commanded the battalion in Vietnam"), but he has just as often turned such things to his advantage.

Whether or not he prevails this time, the general is not to be dismissed.

"Haig has the makings of a marathon runner," Morris said. "He has that staying power, which is more visceral and physical than intellectual."

And, said Haig's wife, Patricia, as she accompanied him through the New England chill recently, "He doesn't think that you should limit your ambitions. I think that's true of all the presidential candidates. They reach for the top, even though people tell them they have no chance."