President Clinton surveyed the several hundred people gathered at the Hotel Washington on a recent evening, nodded toward Jesse L. Jackson, and stated his feelings bluntly.

"I came here tonight," the president told those attending a fund-raiser for Jackson's political organization, "because I owe Jesse. And because I love him."

The coziness between the two men--arguably the nation's two best-known Democrats--is remarkable, considering that Clinton launched his national political career by helping found a centrist group to pull the Democratic Party away from the influence of Jackson and other liberals. Moreover, a highlight of Clinton's first presidential campaign was a speech meant to rebuke--some say humiliate--the famous civil rights leader.

Closing those breaches has required Jackson to swallow a bit of his famous ego, even as some associates urged him to confront the president. But Jackson's loyalty has been handsomely repaid, enabling him to tap the prestige and power of the White House for many of his policy priorities, his fund-raising needs and the publicity that helps him remain the nation's most visible African American leader even 16 years after his first bid for the presidency.

Today, for example, Clinton travels to New York for his third consecutive appearance at Jackson's annual "Wall Street Project" luncheon. The project presses corporate executives to bring more jobs, contracts and loans to minorities and others.

Clinton benefits from the friendship, too. Not only does it keep a potentially troublesome rival in his corner on most issues, but it sends a steady message of goodwill to black voters, the group that remained most loyal to the president throughout the sex scandal and his impeachment and acquittal.

"It is a kind of constant signal to the African American community that this president identifies with them," said Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin professor emeritus and author of several books on the presidency.

At the height of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, the Clinton-Jackson relationship took a personal turn, as the president sought out the famously charismatic Baptist minister for spiritual consultation.

"It must be one of the more fascinating, complex, multi-layered, nuanced relationships in American politics," said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution presidential scholar. It's understandable that the two might seek accord on purely political issues where possible, he said, "but there is obviously something on a very personal level as well."

On June 13, 1992, prospects for such a relationship seemed dim. That's when Clinton, a Democratic presidential candidate eager to show moderates and conservatives his willingness to stand up to the liberal Jackson, attended Jackson's Rainbow Coalition convention and denounced it for giving a public forum to rap singer Sister Souljah, whose words Clinton said were "filled with hatred." Citing black-on-black murders in America, the singer earlier had suggested "why not have a week and kill white people?"

In a recent interview, Jackson raised the Sister Souljah incident without waiting to be asked, depicting it as a watershed moment when he was personally wronged but opted to turn the other cheek for the sake of the causes he pursues.

"I suppose the lowest moment in the relationship was the Sister Souljah tactic that was employed against us at our conference," Jackson said. "It was in many ways beneath his dignity. . . . I had to make a big decision at that time in personal terms, and so many people who felt it was a scheme, not accidental, urged me to make it a point of confrontation."

But Jackson said he decided that Clinton's "cumulative batting average" on important issues made it paramount that Democrats end 12 years of Republican presidencies.

"I had to accept the personal blow for the higher and greater good," Jackson said. Clearly pleased that Clinton turned to him during the Lewinsky scandal, he added: "As the wheel of time turned and he was at his lowest moment, and his back was against the wall, we got even closer."

In the six years between Sister Souljah and Monica Lewinsky, Clinton and Jackson slowly built a relationship in which they conferred fairly often, collaborated on some issues, differed sharply on others but stopped short of opening new rifts that could not be closed, associates say.

"It's a relationship that has evolved," said Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman, who knows both men well. "I'm not sure I would use the term 'relationship' in the beginning. The more they got to know each other and started working on many of the policy initiatives, they realized they had more in common. Where there were clear differences, there was an ability to talk about it and not prejudge one another."

Over the years, Clinton tapped Jackson as his special envoy to Africa and an emissary to Haiti, but Jackson didn't hesitate to criticize the administration when he thought it veered too sharply right. In August 1996, he joined others at the White House gate to protest the Clinton-backed welfare reform package that trimmed food stamps and eliminated benefits for legal immigrants. Jackson's rhetoric stayed below the level of bombast, however, and a few days later Clinton gave him a coveted speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist who follows Jackson closely, says a turning point in the two men's relationship occurred in the summer of 1995 when Clinton proposed a "mend it, don't end it" prescription for affirmative action, which was under assault on several fronts.

"I think Reverend [Jackson] was very helpful to him," Walters said. "It led to Jackson's appointment as special emissary for democratization in Africa. That deepened the relationship. Before those things happened, Reverend Jackson felt very free and did often disagree with the administration."

The relationship reached full bloom last July, when Jackson accompanied Clinton on a four-day, seven-state "New Markets" tour, designed to attract investment and jobs to communities that the recent economic boom has largely bypassed. Nearly as big a celebrity as Clinton, Jackson was surrounded and cheered by crowds at every stop. But White House officials knew they could not let Jackson overshadow the president or speak at every stop, as several corporate executives and political dignitaries were along to share the spotlight.

"People wondered whether it would be a problem that on a four-day trip he wouldn't have a visible or speaking role at several stops," said Gene Sperling, Clinton's chief economic adviser and a close collaborator with Jackson on the New Markets initiative. "But he turned out to be just a terrific team player."

For example, Sperling said, Jackson never complained when he was assigned to the groups that toured a factory or facility after Clinton and all the cameras had already passed through. "When CEOs and other community leaders saw Jackson enthusiastically participate in the secondary tour," he said, "that just lifted the aura of the tour tailing behind the president."

CAPTION: Jesse L. Jackson introduces President Clinton at "Wall Street Project" lunch in New York last year.