Vice President Gore acknowledged yesterday that he hired controversial feminist Naomi Wolf for a $15,000-a-month consulting fee, saying the author and columnist is a "valued adviser" who has helped him target younger voters.

Wolf, who has written extensively on women as sex objects and advocates teaching teenagers masturbation as an alternative to intercourse, has been dispensing advice to the vice president on everything from fashion to public speaking, according to several aides. Working closely with Gore's message team since last year, Wolf has encouraged Gore to "speak from the heart" to connect better with voters, said one strategist.

Her unique role--and her status as one of the highest-paid consultants--in the Gore operation was first reported by Time magazine.

Gore has gone to great lengths to conceal Wolf's role, funneling her payments through other consulting firms so that her name would not appear on financial reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

A frequent contributor to political magazines, Wolf is considered one of the more controversial feminists of her time, though her ideology is not given to easy labels. In her first book, she attacked cosmetic companies for infusing women with inferior views of themselves, but in later writings she has accused women of complicity in accepting that status by failing to seize power.

Wolf's "Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood" is written in "the first person sexual," as she put it, and argues that the best way to strike a balance between abstinence and sexual intercourse is to teach teenagers "sexual gradualism" or masturbation, mutual masturbation and oral sex. It is, Wolf wrote, "as sensible as teaching kids to drive."

Gore's aides were hard-pressed to say why the vice president turned to a woman with so many provocative views for such high-priced guidance. And many who had only learned of her role in recent weeks acknowledged that news of her behind-the-scenes influence has created tensions in an operation that has already struggled through several rounds of housecleaning.

"Why there's a premium on her advice, you've got to ask her," said one puzzled Gore aide.

Yesterday, appearing on ABC's "This Week," Gore said Wolf has worked closely with his eldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, on a project she heads to recruit young people to his campaign.

But a half-dozen other sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Wolf's tentacles stretch far beyond that project, dubbed "GoreNet." Over the past year, Wolf has participated in strategy meetings at the vice president's home, assisted his speechwriter Eli Attie and spent three days last week in New Hampshire with Gore as he prepared for his joint appearance with rival Bill Bradley.

"Naomi is a very creative person," said Gore press secretary Chris Lehane. "She is part of the creative thought process. She helps with creative ways to reach out to people, out-of-the-box thinking."

Wolf, the wife of former White House speechwriter David J. Shipley, was an informal adviser to President Clinton's 1996 campaign, said consultant Dick Morris. But she was never paid, and Morris said yesterday her input was limited to "cultural issues" and stylistic matters.

Morris speculated that Wolf, who has long contended that earth tones are more "reassuring" to audiences, is the person behind Gore's recent wardrobe change. Others confirmed that she has supported the vice president's shift to brown, olive green and tan shades.

Wolf has grown close to his wife, Tipper, and is said to speak several times a week to Schiff, discussing her public speeches and a recent appearance on a morning talk show.

Time magazine reported that Wolf has been a leading proponent of Gore distancing himself from Clinton, describing Gore as the "beta male" who must challenge the "alpha male" if he is to ascend to the top position himself.

Wolf could not be reached last night, but Gore said she will remain one of his top advisers. Two weeks ago, however, newly installed campaign manager Donna Brazile, as part of a widespread cost-cutting effort, slashed Wolf's retainer to $5,000 per month.

Although Wolf is often silent in large strategy meetings, Gore aides said she works closely with media specialists Carter Eskew and Bob Shrum. She was initially paid through the Squier, Knapp consulting firm but now receives her fee through a new company, Century Media, formed by Eskew, Shrum and Bill Knapp.

"There was a time when very few people had the kind of impact she was having," said one of Gore's close advisers. But her prominence has "ebbed and flowed," this person stressed.

In the television interview yesterday, Gore continued to attack Bradley's health care plan as a budget buster that threatens other popular programs, such as Medicare and Social Security.

Bradley, appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation," rejected Gore's charges as a "partisan shot" and "scare tactics." Instead, he said his $65 billion-a-year plan to provide health insurance to millions more Americans is emblematic of his style of leadership.

"It's a big problem; it deserves a big solution," Bradley said in his most forceful defense to date. "I've offered that, and I think he's been much more incremental in nature."

The former NBA star and senator repeatedly said he would not resort to "negativism and extreme partisanship" but questioned Gore's description of Clinton on impeachment day last year as one of the greatest presidents in history. "I'd probably pick Lincoln, FDR, Washington, Jefferson, Wilson and TR [Teddy Roosevelt], Harry Truman and James K. Polk."

Bradley brushed off Gore's charge that he almost quit the Democratic Party to run for president as an independent. "I didn't abandon my party," he said of his departure from the Senate in 1996. "I campaigned for 46 Democrats and made sure a Democrat replaced me in the United States Senate."

But Bradley was less firm on his view toward the retirement age for Social Security, saying that the debate on that controversial issue "should continue."

CAPTION: Naomi Wolf, a feminist author, received a $15,000-per-month consulting fee to aid Gore effort.

CAPTION: Vice President Gore, on ABC's "This Week," said Naomi Wolf worked closely on his daughter's project.