Early last March at a Republican retreat in Annapolis, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (Ga.) made a small request of Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour. Would Barbour, Gingrich wondered, underwrite the cost of a political advertisement in TV Guide?

It was late at night and a little whiskey had been poured by the chairman and he was feeling generous. He didn't even ask what it was about. Gingrich always had schemes. Fine, Barbour said, and that was that.

The discussion was perhaps the most casual moment in months of planning, polling and plotting of strategy that produced the House Republicans' "Contract With America." The document, unveiled on the Capitol steps in September and published in TV Guide in October, helped shape the political debate in the fall campaign, will define the early days of the 104th Congress and may determine the Republican Party's fate in the next two years.

The 10-point contract -- 10 because Gingrich, in the words of one congressional aide, believes the number has a mythic quality in American culture -- lays out one of the most ambitious 100-day agendas ever undertaken by a political party.

During the first 100 days, House Republicans have pledged to bring to the floor for votes legislation ranging from a constitutional amendment to balance the budget to tax cuts for business, middle-class families and senior citizens, welfare reform and term limits. On opening day, they promise to reform the way the House does business by requiring Congress to live under the laws it passes, cutting committee staffs, limiting the terms of committee chairmen and requiring a three-fifths majority to raise taxes.

The contract has been denounced by critics as a series of promises that either do not add up or will bring extraordinary hardship to the country. But that has done little to deter the Republicans, for the contract is not something they stumbled into by accident. It was the product of months of planning that included everything from polling and focus groups to consultation among Republican constituencies to analysis and scrubbing by GOP experts.

"It is a seriously intended legislative agenda," said Rep. Richard K. Armey (Tex.), who had the responsibility for putting the contract together and is in line to be the House majority leader. "We hope to pass every one of them, but we never made a guarantee we would do that."

The contract began with an idea, hatched earlier this year in a meeting that included Gingrich, now the House speaker-to-be; Armey; and Reps. Bill Paxon (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee; Tom DeLay (Tex.), Robert S. Walker (Pa.) and others.

Republicans had concluded two things about the political climate. One was that they had an outside chance to take over the House in the fall; the other was that the political climate was already so negative toward President Clinton that they needed a positive agenda to offer the voters.

"We consciously designed the contract to do two different things," Gingrich said in an interview shortly before the Nov. 8 elections. "First, to have a program so that if we did win control for the first 100 days we would actually have a game plan and so that our freshmen would arrive and be involved in changing the city, not learning how to be part of the city. Second, we thought a positive party, standing on the Capitol steps, offering a positive set of things people actually want . . . would be a healthy antidote to the level of anger at Clinton and the level of negativism."

Gingrich set the date for the platform's unveiling, Sept. 27, as a way to frame the final weeks' debate in the campaign, dictated that the list be limited to 10 items and suggested Republicans pledge to accomplish all 10 within 90 days. Armey, as chairman of the House Republican Conference, which helps to set party policy, was deputized to coordinate the project. He recognized the Herculean nature of trying to do that much that quickly and suggested 100 days, according to one aide.

DeLay said there was a number of criteria for including items in the contract:

Every issue had to energize Republican voters.

Nothing was to be included that would split House Republicans and the congressional candidates. Almost immediately that ruled out any explicit mention of abortion. "Not that we're not a pro-life conference," DeLay said. "But we wanted to make sure we had as many candidates and incumbents {as possible} coming together to sign the contract."

Every item had to be something Republicans could accomplish in 100 days. "We weren't going to promise something we couldn't do," he said.

Armey, for example, is a strong advocate of scrapping the current tax system and replacing it with a flat tax. "It's too big for 100 days," he said.

That is also why the contract does not pledge to enact any legislation, only to bring it to the floor, conduct an open debate and take a vote.

Even now, a number of senior House Republicans doubt the term-limits amendment will pass when it comes to a vote next year -- and in the wake of the electoral upheaval, some Republicans, such as Armey, are having second thoughts about whether terms limits are even needed.

"Now, with Republicans in Congress, I don't feel as much a need for it, but I'll vote for it," he said.

House Republicans had spent the first 18 months of the Clinton administration in weekly meetings trying to develop a set of ideas they could rally around, so there was at least a general sense of what any document would contain. But during the early summer, Republicans set about canvassing their candidates and the American people to find out which ideas had the most public appeal.

Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, conducted three focus groups and showed participants a series of eight televisions ads that had been prepared to test various themes, ideas and concepts.

"The one thing that jumped out was that voters were looking for a mechanism to hold elected officials more accountable," Goeas said. "The most important thing about the contract is the accountability of signing a pledge."

Frank Luntz, another GOP pollster, was asked to prepare a questionnaire for all incumbent House Republicans as well as the GOP challengers around the country.

The eight-page questionnaire asked candidates to rank issues in two different ways; first, whether they liked or disliked the idea, and second, whether including it in the platform would help or hurt politically in their district. The list included 67 specific items in 12 categories. About 100 incumbents and 120 challengers returned the questionnaires, Luntz said.

With the poll results in hand, Armey set up a series of working groups to winnow the list and flesh out the specifics in legislative language. The working groups were instructed to pay special attention to the interests of the challengers.

"The open seat candidates and the challengers were bolder," said Ed Gillespie, an aide to Armey. "We wanted to err on the side of more bold, not less."

The working groups had responsibility for outside consultation with think tanks, trade associations, business groups and other experts. The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) was one key group in urging the Republicans to make their tax and regulatory recommendations friendlier to Main Street than to Wall Street.

"We felt the economic opportunity part was fairly heavily tilted toward Wall Street," said John Motley, who heads the NFIB.

DeLay, who headed the regulatory working group, said he consulted with "probably over 100" mostly Republican groups. "Anybody who was interested," he said. But he added, "Ralph Nader was not there."

The winnowing process proved extremely difficult. There was a major battle over whether to include school prayer in the contract that pitted Gingrich against Armey. Gingrich did not want to include it and carried the day, then inexplicably thrust it into the post-election dialogue by promising a vote on it by mid-summer of next year.

But there were other big items that were excluded. One was a rollback of the personal income tax rate increases for wealthy Americans that was part of Clinton's 1993 budget package. As much as Republicans disliked the tax hikes, the revenue generated by the higher rates proved too valuable, given other tax cuts the Republicans wanted to propose.

"We couldn't afford to do the rollback," Armey said.

Health care was not included because at the time no one knew how the debate over Clinton's plan would turn out. Education was largely left out.

But with 67 specific items on Luntz's list, there was heavy lobbying as Republicans tried to reduce the contract to just 10 items. In the end, they pulled a classic congressional compromise by folding multiple items into a single heading. That, for example, is why the first item, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, contains both the balanced budget amendment and the line-item veto.

Rep. John R. Kasich (Ohio), who is in line to become chairman of the House Budget Committee, played a crucial role in blessing the arithmetic -- even though it remains the most controversial aspect of the plan. "He was skeptical about the numbers," said Tony Blankley, Gingrich's press secretary. "Later, he did the numbers and felt comfortable."

Once the contract was completed, Republicans took it for another road test. Luntz conducted another survey to test specific language and held focus groups in which he tried out four different versions of the TV Guide ad, which cost a little more than $250,000, including production.

The research produced some changes in language -- "citizen legislators" was the term used to describe the effect of term limits -- and resulted in the Republicans not describing the document as a "Republican contract," a point that became controversial.

Gingrich picked TV Guide as the vehicle for promoting the contract because it had a shorter lead time than Readers Digest and because the typical subscriber would open up the magazine repeatedly the week it was current. The ad ran in the Oct. 22-28 issue.

On Sept. 27, more than 300 House Republicans gathered on the steps of the Capitol to sign the contract before television cameras. Even then the Republican Party had established the equivalent of a contract war room in its headquarters that provided a steady flow of faxes, talking points and backup material to candidates.

"We had said for six months to our candidates, 'No matter what happens, you will be attacked in the final weeks by the Democrats on Social Security,' " Paxon said.

The contract provoked that debate, but Republican strategists said that because the contract was unveiled in late September, they had enough time to counteract it. "We were saying, 'Don't throw us into that briar patch'," Gillespie said.

With their majority in hand, the contract may prove to be a mixed blessing for the Republicans. Republican strategist William Kristol said that however valuable the contract was in shaping the campaign debate, it is even more valuable in giving Republicans a clear agenda for next year.

"In the absence of the contract, it would have been very difficult to get any focus or coherence," he said.

But Kristol said Republicans should not hold themselves to the strict details of the legislation that supports the more general language in the contract, arguing that the public would not demand that every detail be legislated into law.

But will the public be satisfied if House Republicans produce floor votes on these 10 bills, only to see some fail or watch them be bottled up or defeated in the Senate?

The attention the contract has received since the election adds pressure on Republicans to deliver perhaps more than they promised, Goeas said.

"The one thing that the members have to really deal with and understand -- and it's been said to them repeatedly -- and that is no matter how you worded it, there was still an expectation that some of these would pass," he said. "I have a feeling that this could take on a life of its own and expectations could be higher. The contract today is much more meaningful than it was even a week before the election."

Congressional reforms to be passed on the first day of 104th Congress:

Require all laws to apply equally to the Congress, which is now exempt from some; conduct an audit of congressional spending; cut the number of House committees and staff by one-third; limit terms of committee chairs; require three-fifths majority vote to pass a tax increase.

Bills to be brought to a vote within 100 days:

1. THE FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: A balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and line-item veto power for the president.

2. THE TAKING BACK OUR STREETS ACT: Focus on longer prison sentences; stengthen the death penalty; cut previous crime bill's social spending and use the money for more prison construction.

3. THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: Prohibit welfare benefits to minor mothers and deny increased benefits for additional children born to mothers on welfare; cut spending for welfare programs; and end benefits after two years, with provisions for work requirements.

4. THE FAMILY REINFORCEMENT ACT: Bolster enforcement of child support; provide tax incentives for adoption; strengthen rights of parents in their children's education; strengthen child pornography laws; and provide an elderly dependent care tax credit.

5. THE AMERICAN DREAM RESTORATION ACT: Provide a $500 per child tax credit; repeal marriage penalty in tax code.

6. THE NATIONAL SECURITY RESTORATION ACT: Prohibit U.N. command of U.S. troops; increase defense spending, particularly on antimissile defenses.

7. THE SENIOR CITIZENS FAIRNESS ACT: Raise the Social Security earnings limit; repeal the 1993 tax increases on Social Security benefits; provide tax incentives for private long-term care insurance.

8. THE JOB CREATION AND WAGE ENHANCEMENT ACT: Enact small business incentives; cut and index capital gains tax.

9. THE COMMON SENSE LEGAL REFORM ACT: Limit punitive damages in civil law suits; reform product liability laws.

10. THE CITIZEN LEGISLATURE ACT: Limit senators to two terms and House members to three or six terms.

SOURCE: Republican National Committee