Herman Lodge remembers the day the strangers in cheap suits came riding into town. They were young, idealistic and abrasive. But more important, they were lawyers.

And so it came to pass that in the 1970s, attorneys working for the federally funded Legal Services Corporation filed a flurry of lawsuits on behalf of Lodge and other local blacks, embarking on a legal odyssey that won for African Americans here the right to sit on juries, school boards and even the Burke County Commission. It also made Lodge the first black elected official in a rural county the size of Rhode Island, where more than half the population is black and many of the people are poor.

Those days are history. Legal Services lawyers do not do that kind of work in Georgia any more. The once busy legal aid office in Waynesboro has closed. It is a video rental store now. A circuit-riding attorney still visits a few times a month from the Augusta office, which covers 13 counties. They hand out pamphlets. There is a hot line to call. There is a lot of bitterness, too.

"Legal Services? You can't get it. Why? Because it doesn't exist anymore," Lodge said. "They don't want poor folks to have a lawyer because it's too much damn trouble."

Of all the programs targeted this year by the Republican Congress as eminently disposable and ideologically left-leaning, the Legal Services Corporation is among the most visible and -- with the passage of the Omnibus Budget Act of 1996 in April -- among the hardest hit.

Funding for Legal Services, the quasi-federal program designed to provide free civil legal help for the poor, was reduced from $400 million in 1995 to $278 million this year. The cut was far deeper than most other agencies took. Next year, Republicans hope to slash spending to $140 million -- about the amount Congress has appropriated for the architect of the Capitol.

In addition to the 30 percent reduction in funding this year, Congress placed additional restrictions on the kinds of cases and clients the Legal Services attorneys may represent. No more class-action suits. No litigation aimed at systemic reform. No more prisoners or illegal aliens as clients.

"We used to take every meritorious case that walked through the door," said Lisa Krischer, director of litigation for Georgia Legal Services. "Now we give people a 1-800 number and when they call us up we tell them, No, no, no.' "

Perhaps no other program stands like such a Rorschach test in the American political system. Reactions to it differ widely depending on ideology and outlook. What liberals see as evening the scales of justice for the poor is seen by others as outrageous taxpayer subsidies of left-wing causes.

The program, which has consumed almost $5 billion in its two decades, has served millions of clients. But Congressional Republicans say the legal needs of the poor can be met by private lawyers doing pro bono work or locally funded versions of the national program. Republicans also say their local Congressional offices already provide the kinds of "constituents services" the poor need in many civil matters.

"Quite honestly, we get frustrated with all the puff pieces that the press does on Legal Services," said Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C), senior member of the subcommittee that oversees the program and a conservative who has vowed to "zero-out" the agency.

Taylor and other critics argue that the legal aid program actively defies the will of taxpayers; that it searches for clients and needlessly encourages them to sue; that it is wasteful, non-accountable and works in many cases against the true desires and needs of low-income Americans. Moreover, Taylor and others say the corporation, and its 300 independent offices, are hopelessly liberal.

"Of the 1.6 million legal matters they say they handled last year, at our request, they could not find one case where they helped throw a drug dealer out of public housing or helped protect a home schooler," said Taylor, referring to the practice, popular among conservative Christians, of teaching children at home. "They have never stepped forward to help on the moderate or conservative front."

Over the years, Legal Services attorneys such as those here in Georgia have defended the poor against landlords, bureaucrats, usurious "rent-to-own" scams and violent spouses.

They have, even their critics concede, helped poor people keep their homes, their possessions, their benefits and, according to Lodge and other clients, their dignity -- by giving low-income citizens access to civil court and its remedies.

Yet Legal Services attorneys in Georgia and elsewhere also have represented vastly unpopular causes and clients: AIDS patients, prisoners, crack-addicted moms, pregnant teenagers seeking abortions, homosexuals wanting to adopt children and public housing tenants accused of dealing drugs.

They have fought welfare reform, challenged immigration laws and sought broad class-action remedies. Many times, their opponent was the federal government itself.

Legal Services lawyers also have inserted themselves into highly charged political cases, such as voting rights and redistricting, including a case that involved one of the agency's most outspoken critics, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), when he switched parties and became a Republican.

"Are they really representing the poor, or are they pursuing their own political agenda?" asked Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative foundation that supports open and accountable government.

Boehm and his congressional supporters charge that legal aid attorneys have actually hurt the poor. He cites two recent Georgia cases, one in which legal aid lawyers petitioned to free a double ax murderer from a mental hospital and another where they attempted to stop the evictions of public housing tenants charged with dealing drugs or letting drugs be dealt from their homes.

The corporation's defenders, including some Republicans here, say the program's critics are misguided. They worry that the critics are killing the program to protest a handful of ideologically charged cases, when the vast majority of work performed is excruciatingly mundane -- but important -- such as fighting ordinary evictions, seeking unemployment benefits, getting back a few hundred dollars in security deposits and helping to keep problem children in school rather than expelling them.

"The high-profile cases are only a tiny percentage of the total number," said Jack Long, an Augusta attorney who has served on the Georgia Legal Services board of directors and who describes himself as "a right-wing Republican who favors the death penalty and raised money for Phil Gramm."

"Here in Augusta, they got a bad rap because they made the county build a new jail. Well, the county needed a new jail and our local politicians lacked the intestinal fortitude to spend money on one. They also got a bad rap because of the voting rights cases, which were real unpopular in some quarters that did not believe political power should be shared. Legal Services got blamed for it, but maybe they ought to be given a medal."

Long said his fellow Republicans are being short-sighted. "Down here the system is bipartisan, and it works," he contended. "They're not some kind of left-wing group. They're not running amok. They're giving a key to the courthouse door for people without the money to hire people like me."

The idea behind the Legal Services program began more than two decades ago during the Nixon administration, which decided that low-income Americans deserve help in civil court. Unlike in criminal court, the poor do not have a constitutional right to a publicly funded attorney in civil court, where they can sue a landlord for not fixing the toilet.

The program, since its inception, has had a stormy history. It was bolstered by President Jimmy Carter, cut by Ronald Reagan, endured by George Bush and now attacked by Congressional Republicans -- with grudging acceptance by the Clinton administration, which was not prepared to make Legal Services a do-or-die issue in the budget battle, despite the fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton once served on the Legal Services board of directors. This is particularly disturbing to many Legal Services supporters.

Since it began, the program has been highly decentralized. The Washington headquarters doles out almost 97 percent of its funding to program offices throughout the 50 states, each operating with its own board of directors and its own priorities.

Last year, 80 lawyers and 37 paralegals worked for Georgia Legal Services. This year the number of lawyers was reduced to 60, the paralegals to 24. Next year, more secretaries, typists, paralegals and attorneys -- who make a starting salary of $24,250 and get a raise of $1,000 a year -- will be let go.

In 1995, Georgia Legal Services received $5.3 million from the Washington headquarters and gathered another $2.5 million from other federal agencies and organizations, including almost a million dollars in interest generated by funds temporarily placed in lawyers' trust accounts. They received nothing from the state of Georgia.

Legal services officials here are not optimistic about replacing federal funds with money from the Georgia bar and groups such as the United Way. Edward Grunewald, a former legal aid attorney now in private practice in Waynesboro, says his pro bono cases have tripled in the past year as the cuts took effect, and he now has to turn people away. "Folks who should have worked with Legal Services come to me and ask me to represent them for free," he says.

Sheryl Hudson, the managing lawyer in the Augusta office, said she and her staff of three lawyers and two paralegals no longer tackle many of the cases they once pursued -- even a year ago.

They now focus on three priorities: assisting women in violently abusive marriages by seeking restraining orders, child custody and divorces; keeping tenants from being thrown out of public housing -- including those accused of drug dealing; and assisting clients in suing for benefits, such as Medicaid, Social Security and welfare.

"We're turning away more than we're taking," Hudson said. The Augusta office, for example, no longer handles three of the most pressing civil legal problems of the area's poor. They do not intervene in private landlord and tenant disputes, here in a region where landlords have been known to evict tenants by pulling doors off hinges and turning off electricity and water.

They also gave up on consumer fraud and education cases. Here in southeast Georgia, a "get-tough" atmosphere means that students are routinely expelled from school for bad behavior.

Last year, Georgia Legal Services represented many of the children and their parents at expulsion tribunals, arguing, for example, that the trouble often could be traced to learning or psychological disabilities.

Critics such as Taylor argue that in such cases, the problem that needs fixing is the school district. Why have one taxpayer-supported entity sue another? Taylor asked. Why not fix the problem?

But Brian Kintisch, a Legal Services attorney based in Augusta, says the school district -- and other governmental bureaucracies -- need to be pressured by legal aid lawyers or the problems will never be addressed.

And he says one of the most efficient ways to change the system is class-action lawsuits, with the idea being that it is better to go for "wholesale" change rather than individual "retail" cases. Under the omnibus appropriations bill passed in April, Legal Services lawyers are forbidden from pursuing all class-action cases.

Krischer views that as a big mistake. "Who else but Legal Services is going to take on the state for a bunch of kids in mental hospital who can't pay?" she asked.

At the Augusta offices, legal aid lawyers reviewed 2,200 cases last year. Of these, private attorneys accepted 108 cases. Only about 10 percent of the Augusta region bar accepted Legal Services referrals.

Long and other attorneys here said private lawyers should do more to support Legal Services, but he said it was unfair to expect the local bar to cover the costs. After all, he said, doctors aren't asked to provide free services to all their poor patients. "It was bad before, but since the cuts, Legal Services has disappeared," said attorney Grunewald. "I know everybody thinks there are too many lawyers. In D.C., New York, L.A., maybe that's true. But in rural areas, there ain't. And in the South, where that's coupled with economic and racial strata, and all the conflicts of interest, it becomes a big problem." Lodge, the Burke County commissioner, put it this way: "It means people will just have to suffer. That's what you do when you don't have any money. You just have to shut up and take it." CAPTION: Attorney Brian Kintisch, of the Augusta Legal Services office, gives advice during a clinic for homeless people.