WASHINGTON — TOM WOOD may have been the most-qualified candidate for a philosophy teacher's job he once applied for, but -- a friend on the search committee told him -- the post was reserved for a woman.
Randy Pech believes he lost a contract to build guardrails along a Colorado highway, even though he was the lowest bidder, because Washington paid a $10,000 bonus to the contractor to choose a Hispanic-owned firm.
These two white males are at the forefront of a new set of challenges to affirmative action -- the unpopular racial and gender preferences that are pervasive in university admissions, corporate hiring, and government contracting decisions.
Mr. Wood, the northern California academic, helped draft and organize an already-popular ballot initiative to ban all affirmative action in California.
Even its opponents expect it to succeed easily next year, and its supporters -- who include Republican Gov. Pete Wilson -- are already looking to take their fight to the 22 other states that allow lawmaking by referendum.
Mr. Pech's lawsuit, recently heard by the United States Supreme Court, offers the justices an opportunity to dramatically curtail the federal system of racial preferences that has driven affirmative action for 30 years.
Several other important legal challenges are moving through the federal courts.
An appeals court has stopped the Federal Communications Commission from auctioning broadcast licenses for mobile-phone service until a suit is resolved challenging racial and gender restrictions for licensees.
A New Jersey case is testing whether a school district can lay off a white teacher instead of a black, where blacks are already well-represented, solely because it wants more black teachers.
President Clinton, a longtime supporter of affirmative action, ordered an ''intense, urgent review'' of federal affirmative action programs last month. Leading Democrats such as Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman are calling some affirmative action programs ''patently unfair.''
Bob Dole, Senate majority leader and the leading GOP presidential prospect, recently denounced President Richard Nixon's executive order that still stands as the basis for many racial preferences in federal contracting.
Although Democrats grin slyly over the abortion-rights issue and its potential to pin the GOP with an unpopular position, the Democratic Party has a political parallel of its own in affirmative action. It is passionately unpopular with most Americans but strongly supported by party activists.
The political atmosphere is uncomfortable to those who try to draw fine lines.
John Bunzel, a scholar at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, has been an outspoken opponent of racial quotas and outright preferences. But he opposes the California initiative because it is too sweeping and broad to allow different institutions to work out their own uses for diversity and how to get it.
''I find myself arguing against a tidal wave,'' he says.
The American public has grown steadily in its support for civil rights and anti-discrimination laws in hiring and housing, says Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. But using racial and gender preferences to make up for past discrimination was opposed by three quarters of Americans polled last week by The Washington Post. More than two thirds of women oppose preferences that favor them, and blacks are split over racial preferences.
Affirmative action is nearly universal in higher education, both in student admissions and in hiring. It is also widespread in government hiring and contracting. This is true especially in the federal government, which has more legal leeway to use race and gender as factors than other levels of government.
US corporations have also widely adopted affirmative action in hiring, usually to comply with federal contract rules.
Affirmative action programs take different forms, but essentially they are an effort to raise the percentages of blacks, women, or other historically disadvantaged groups in hiring or admissions.
The legal basis for affirmative action has never been to achieve diversity in a workforce or student body. A corporate desire to have more blacks and women in the policy-making ranks of a company, for example, would probably be ruled out as reverse discrimination under current law, according to George Rutherglen of the University of Virginia Law School.
Instead, the executive orders that began with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon creating affirmative action have looked to compensate for the social disadvantage that has handicapped certain people in the marketplace.
But ''Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Pacific Americans, Subcontinent-Asian Americans,'' according to federal regulations, ''are to be considered socially and economically disadvantaged.'' Most others must prove disadvantage or discrimination as individuals.
Federal contracts require large companies to produce written plans, with goals and timetables, for their workforces to ''utilize'' minorities and women in each job category according to the available pool of qualified people. Companies who fail to reach their goals must show good-faith efforts.
In practice, many contractors treat the numbers as quotas to avoid negotiating plans with federal enforcement officials, says Sue Meisinger of the Society for Human Resources Management.
Universities are allowed by law to use race as a factor in choosing among qualified applicants, but a 1978 Supreme Court decision ruled that race could not be the only or dominant factor.
But how far does minority status push a would-be student ahead of others with better grades and test scores?
Only the admissions officers know for sure. As in many hiring situations, those who are passed by often suspect they lost out because of race or sex.
John Bunzel, a former university president who has studied affirmative action in higher education, once obtained a copy of a private memo written by the provost of a major university that had advertised nationally for a faculty position. The memo specified that the position must go to a minority candidate. White applications would be set aside.
The California ballot initiative would change all that, at least at the state level. It would bar the state and any of its agencies from using ''race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group.''