PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- When Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) was asked two months ago what he had done recently for Rhode Island, his response vividly illustrated why Republicans had made him a prime target in the Nov. 6 elections.

"I couldn't give you a specific answer. My memory's not as good as it should be," the 71-year-old lawmaker observed with amiable absent-mindedness.

When he was asked the same question in a televised debate here last month, Pell demonstrated just as powerfully why he is running comfortably ahead of his Republican challenger, Rep. Claudine Schneider, in recent polls.

"I forgot. What was it?" he quipped in reference to the original question, sending a wave of sympathetic laughter through the crowd in Salomon Hall at Brown University. Then he proceeded to reel off a list of goodies he brought home to Rhode Island, including vocational education grants, a park, a coastal institute and fisheries programs.

The Senate race here is a contest between two highly popular individuals who differ far more in age, image and style than they do on issues or ideology. In many ways, it is a classic struggle of youthful energy and leadership for the future against experience, seniority and old loyalties.

Despite his eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, Pell is a revered figure among Rhode Islanders, who have elected him to the Senate for 30 years, usually by handsome margins.

He is a patrician among the blue-collar sons and daughters of immigrants, a political throwback who speaks in mumbles rather than sound bites, wears suits and shoes worthy of a museum and acknowledges, as he did recently to several reporters, that he is "perfectly capable . . . of shooting myself in the foot." But polls indicate that voters put a high value on his experience and, as Schneider herself puts it, "everyone in Rhode Island loves Claiborne Pell."

Schneider, too, has an ardent following, especially among younger voters and others drawn to her promise of new leadership on issues such as the environment. Elected five times to the House from a strongly Democratic state, Schnei- der, 43, has earned respect across party lines for her political independence, energy and enthusiasm.

But according to many political observers here, she must give voters a compelling reason to throw Pell out of office and has not yet done so.

Two polls conducted by Providence-based Alpha Research Associates showed Pell's margin widening from 5 to 12 percentage points during August. A survey taken Sept. 16-19 by the Center for Public Policy at Brown showed Pell leading 58 to 35 percent, with only 7 percent undecided, surprising even the poll's director, Darrell West. A Republican poll taken in August showed Pell leading 49 to 40 percent, with the Schneider forces taking comfort from the fact that Pell fell short of 50 percent, often a danger sign for an incumbent this late in the campaign.

After months of trying to "make voters feel comfortable with Claudine Schneider," said deputy campaign manager Robert J. Rendine, the campaign began late last month to concentrate on differences between Pell and Schneider. The effort includes television commercials suggesting that Pell is soft on crime.

Schneider credits Pell for enactment of federal grants for low-income students to attend college, known as Pell grants, but suggests that the program, approved in 1972, was his last accomplishment.

The Schneider campaign also is distributing to local reporters packets of articles from national publications that have suggested Pell is ineffective as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee -- a charge Pell says is belied by the panel's accomplishments, including approval of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1988.

If all this does not work, Rendine says, Schneider may have to "turn up the heat." Probably as a preemptive tactic, Pell strategists claim the Schneider camp is already "going negative." Schneider denies making personal attacks but, almost in the same breath, says things such as, "People tell me I must be giving him {Pell} a hard time because he shows up at hearings and stays awake."

The dilemma for Schneider is that hard-hitting attacks on Pell may also undercut her own strengths and create a surge of sympathy for the incumbent. "It would be like kicking your grandfather," said a Democratic campaign aide.

But she may not have any real choice, said Tony Pesaturo, president of the Alpha polling firm. "Either she wants to be nice or she wants to be a United States senator," he said.

Meanwhile, events at home and abroad continue to play to Pell's strengths.

At home, where Democrats normally do best during hard times, Pell is stressing jobs as a leading theme as recession closes in on Rhode Island and the rest of the Northeast. And, as economic concerns mount, some of Schneider's leading issues, such as the environment, have begun to fade, according to Pesaturo.

Abroad, the Persian Gulf crisis has made it a plus -- instead of the usual minus -- to be chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. The effort to turn back Iraq's invasion of Kuwait is universally popular, and newspapers and television screens were filled for days with pictures and accounts of a Pell-led congressional trip to the region in late August.

The publicity carried a message stretching beyond foreign policy. "Here's a 70-some-year-old guy running around the Persian Gulf looking pretty vigorous," noted Pesaturo.

Even the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington mood that is evident in campaigns across the country takes a different turn in Rhode Island. With a 10-year House record, complete with controversial roll call votes, Schneider cannot easily campaign as an "outsider." And the Washington-based criticism of Pell's stewardship of the Foreign Relations panel helps spare him the dubious reputation of a Potomac power player.

Even the issues that Schneider has chosen to stress get muddled. When Schneider criticized Pell for having favored gasoline tax increases, the Pell camp dredged up Schneider's vote for a gas tax increase in 1982. "Et tu, Claudine," the press release proudly read.

But the cutting edge of the campaign remains youth and age, vigor and experience, as underscored by their major pitches in the Brown debate.

Schneider invoked John F. Kennedy's famous call for a "new generation of leaders" and hailed Pell as one of them -- back in 1960. "But now, 30 years later, we again face dramatic challenges" that, she suggested, require another new generation of leaders.

To the chagrin of some of his younger supporters, Pell then reminded the crowd that he was around even earlier: at the birth of the United Nations 45 years ago. His point was that he was eventually being proven right about the United Nations as it now assumes a central role in several crises, including the Persian Gulf confrontation. His television ads convey the same reassuring message, comfortable as the well-scuffed but polished shoes that Pell wears almost as a political trademark: "Quiet accomplishments that make a world of difference."