The Air Force barnstormed across Capitol Hill this week in a frantic lobbying effort to save its favorite new warplane, the F-22 fighter, and succeeded yesterday in winning a change of heart by the speaker of the House of Representatives as well as an endorsement by President Clinton.

But supporters of the supersonic plane still feared that the House would vote today to slash $1.8 billion from the Air Force budget and suspend purchase of the first six F-22s.

The battle over the F-22, which caught the Pentagon by surprise last week, is shaping up as a clash of visions over how best to modernize the Air Force. Defense officials insist the plane is essential for the United States to maintain dominance in the sky against foreign adversaries; F-22 critics argue that the price tag of nearly $200 million per plane has ballooned out of control, and that the money would be better spent upgrading existing aircraft.

Conventional wisdom in Washington has long held that it is politically impossible to kill a major weapon system once it is on the verge of production--especially one like the F-22, which promises 27,000 jobs in 46 states.

But Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the Appropriations subcommittee chairman who engineered the challenge to the F-22, has managed to mute some of the hue and cry that might otherwise accompany the loss of a big defense program by funding an array of other military projects. They include more F-15 and F-16 jet fighters, KC-130J refueling aircraft and JSTARS ground surveillance planes favored by various House members and defense contractors.

Among those supporting the budget reordering is Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), whose St. Louis district is home to 7,000 Boeing workers who will benefit from the extra F-15s. Gephardt has lobbied repeatedly for added F-15 funding over the past several months, even making his pitch to the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, over club sandwiches and pasta salad in his office last month.

Such competing interests are exactly what's made it difficult for F-22 proponents such as Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) to win restoration of funding for the fighter.

Now that money for the advanced, radar-evading jet fighter has been diverted to other programs, he and his allies risk upsetting backers of these projects.

"We're getting a pummeling," Kingston said, expressing grudging admiration for the tactics of Lewis and associates. "Their stealth attack on the F-22 would put their stealth engineers to shame."

In fact an official for one major F-22 supplier said his company would be better off financially for the next few years under Lewis's plan.

"It's difficult for a company like ours when you get caught in the middle," the lobbyist said, adding that his company still supports the Pentagon's long-term position on the F-22 but would not focus on the issue until later in the legislative process. "It's not a do-or-die thing for us."

Insisting the F-22 is still affordable, Clinton yesterday joined the battle to restore production money for the plane, saying it would be a mistake to abandon the project.

"We can fund the plane, without compromising the basic priorities of our national defense within the funds set aside, and that is what I will fight to do," he told a news conference.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who had signaled last week that he thought funding for the F-22 should be cut, also came to the plane's defense. "He now sees the virtue in continuing the production line," said his spokesman, John Feehery.

Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) also strongly supports continuing production, which would translate into thousands of jobs in the Fort Worth area.

But Hastert has no intention of lobbying his House colleagues during today's vote, Feehery said, and F-22 advocates acknowledged that they still faced an uphill struggle. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) had championed the plane, which is being assembled in Marietta, Ga. With his departure, the project has lost its most powerful House sponsor.

"It's a lot of money," said Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who is leading the effort to restore the production funds. "It's an awful lot of money."

Expecting to lose in the House, F-22 proponents are pinning their hopes on the joint House-Senate conference later this summer that will seek to reconcile differences between defense spending bills in the two chambers. The Senate budget plan calls for full funding of the Air Force's request for initial production of F-22s.

"I'm going to make the case for it," Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters this week. "I believe it's the key to the future of the defense of our country."

But Stevens's own bargaining leverage is limited by the fact that his defense bill contains nearly $4 billion less than the $266.1 billion in the House version. Attempting to keep the pressure on House leaders ahead of any conference negotiation, Lockheed Martin Corp., the prime contractor for the F-22, on Monday hired hired Glenn LeMunyon, a former aide to Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), to lobby for the plane.

Lewis insists he is not out to kill the F-22 program, just put off the funding for initial production until lawmakers have a chance to debate whether the United States really needs the plane in addition to two other new jet fighters in the budget--the Navy's F/A18-E/F and the Joint Strike Fighter, which is being pursued by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Air Force officials are warning that a production delay now would doom the plane, because the cost of hiring back high-tech workers and restarting manufacturing lines would be prohibitive. They say the F-22, conceived nearly two decades ago during the Cold War, is still essential to replace the F-15 and F-117 jet fighters and counter threats posed by advanced surface-to-air missile systems and jet fighters being developed by the Russians and Europeans.

In pitches to House members over the past week, top Air Force officials have declared that without the F-22, the Pentagon would have to rethink its air warfare strategy.

In private, they have expressed some frustration at what they regard as a lack of understanding among many House members about the differences between the F-22 and the less expensive, multipurpose Joint Strike Fighter also on the drawing boards. While some lawmakers have suggested forgoing the F-22 and leapfrogging to the JSF, defense officials argue that one is a critical technological stepping stone to the other.

Staff writer Eric Pianin contributed to this report.

In Development

The F-22 Raptor was designed to replace the F-15 as America's front-line fighter.

Airframe builders: Lockheed Martin, Boeing

Engine builder: Pratt & Whitney

Projected employment: 15,000 in development, 27,000 in production

Operational capability: Late 2005

Speed: Mach 2

Crew: Pilot only

Weapons: Six radar-guided AMRAAM missiles, two heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles, 20mm multibarrel cannon, stations for additional armaments.

SOURCES: Lockheed Martin, Boeing