CHICAGO — OUTSIDE the Chicago auditorium, hundreds of bow-tie-sporting security guards patrolled streets and rooftops while vendors sold buttons declaring ''I love Farrakhan'' and ''Power at last ... Farrakhan.''
Inside, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan seemed to revel in the latest attacks on him by the United States government and again portrayed himself as a target of white America and a rebel envoy answerable only to God.
''It is time for a showdown,'' Mr. Farrakhan declared to the clapping and cheers of some 15,000 supporters who crowded the University of Illinois Pavilion for the annual Savior's Day observance Sunday.
Farrakhan is under investigation by the government for agreeing to accept $1 billion from Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi to influence US politics. He met with Colonel Qaddafi during a tour of Libya, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, and 16 other Middle Eastern and Asian states between Jan. 17 and Feb. 24.
The enthusiastic welcome for Farrakhan in Chicago, despite harsh official criticism of his trip, is one sign of a deepening divide between whites and African-Americans over how they perceive the black separatist leader.
Farrakhan's appeal among some blacks - at a time when conservative Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan is winning a measurable degree of support among whites - also raises concerns that political and racial intolerance are rising in American society, analysts say.
''There may be a link between the rise of Pat Buchanan and the rise of Louis Farrakhan, with their nationalistic zeal and the very offensive things they both tend to say about ethnic groups,'' says Columbia University political scientist Carlton Long.
Professor Long noted that Farrakhan has frequently made inflammatory racist and anti-Semitic public remarks, while Mr. Buchanan has been accused of harboring racist views. He said the student-run Columbia Spectator newspaper this week lampooned both men with a new cartoon figure: ''Buchana-khan.''
Farrakhan's recent statements here and abroad have elicited vastly different responses. Critics denounce him as a racist and traitor. Many blacks, however, praise his outspoken message of self-reliance and empowerment for the African-American community and black Muslims worldwide.
In Washington, longtime Farrakhan critic Rep. Peter King (R) of New York has received hundreds of calls and letters - the most ever on an international issue - from people across the country who oppose the Nation of Islam leader and his trip.
''People are outraged by the fact that he is consorting with bloodthirsty dictators,'' says Mr. King's spokesman, Dan Michaelis.
King has scheduled congressional hearings for March 19 to investigate whether Farrakhan broke US regulations, including restrictions on travel to Iraq and Libya and a law that bars private citizens from conducting foreign policy. The Justice Department is investigating Farrakhan's trip, as well.
''We are exposing him for all to see,'' says Mr. Michaelis. ''He is not a legitimate leader for the African-American community. He is a racist, he is a bigot, and he's dangerous.''
After the hearings, King plans to summon Farrakhan to testify on his actions before Congress. Farrakhan says he is eager to oblige.
''Bring me before Congress!'' he shouted to the crowd on Sunday. ''I was born for this moment.'' Criticized by the State Department for ''cavorting with dictators,'' Farrakhan countered in his four-hour speech that no nation ''approaches the evil that is practiced in America on a daily basis.''
Mainstream black leaders who embraced Farrakhan as the initiator of the Million Man March in Washington last Oct. 16 have cautiously distanced themselves from him since the tour. Both the Rev. Jesse Jackson, head of Chicago's Operation Push, and Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, say the trip did ''not help.''
Still, many blacks attending the speech said Farrakhan's tour in no way concerned them or lessened their loyalty to him.
''He went on a peaceful mission. His purpose was to bring atonement and fellowship to Muslims throughout the world,'' says Chicago truck driver Wes Yancey, who supports Farrakhan's teachings but is not a Nation of Islam member.
Farrakhan's conservative creed of black self-strengthening holds an attraction for African-Americans, Mr. Yancey stressed, far outweighing in importance any political controversy.
''I've never heard them teach hate or vile,'' he said. ''It's all constructive - be a man, get off public support, be a father to your child. They say: 'Do for yourself, man, do for yourself.' That's inspiring. Things can get oppressive in today's America, whether you're a millionaire or a hard-working guy like me.''
''It's the only group for blacks that is truly cohesive. It's a strengthening group,'' says Margaret Barnes, a Baptist from Richmond, Va.
''What appeals to me is he [Farrakhan] helps people understand life and clean their lives up,'' says Annie Fair, a medicine inspector from Waukeegan, Ill.