WHEN Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R) was a Minnesota state legislator, he received cassette tapes every couple of weeks from a Washington outfit called GOPAC.
As he traveled the state in his yellow Oldsmobile, Mr. Gutknecht played the cassettes, many of which contained fiery pep talks from GOPAC's then-chairman, Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich.
''I loved those tapes,'' Gutknecht says. ''It was like getting a private chalk talk from Vince Lombardi. Newt was the only guy out there with a consistent message that we could win.''
Last November, Gutknecht and 72 fellow GOP freshmen did just that, becoming part of the first Republican majority in Congress in 40 years.
But according to a suit filed by the Federal Election Commission, GOPAC's influence went beyond inspirational tapes. The suit alleges that GOPAC spent and solicited money to directly influence federal elections - at a time when that was well past the limits of its legally permitted activities.
While the suit, and an independent probe, could jeopardize Mr. Gingrich's House speakership and the GOP's future in November, the bigger story may be how one ambitious politician, through an obscure network of organizations and donors, was able to change the shape of American politics.
''Most of the political movements these days are generated in Washington,'' says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. ''Gingrich's enterprise was centrally directed and entrepreneurial, there was no indigenous grass-roots base.''
Founded in 1979, GOPAC was originally set up as an educational and tax-exempt entity intended to support Republican candidates on the state and local level. As such, it was not subject to the intricate contribution limits and disclosure laws which govern political activity at the higher, federal level.
But from the time he became general chairman in 1986, Gingrich began transforming GOPAC into a multifaceted national force, developing audio and video training programs, conducting research and focus groups, and organizing retreats and seminars for Republican activists.
Dearth of ideas
According to papers obtained by the FEC, Gingrich believed the Republican party's problem wasn't a lack of money, but a dearth of ideas. He referred to GOPAC as ''the creator and disseminator of the new Republican doctrine'' bent on undertaking ''the largest and most encompassing recruiting, training, and funding effort ever attempted by any group.''
Indeed, GOPAC offered itself as a fourth national Republican committee, working alongside the Republican National Committee (RNC), and the Senate and Congressional campaign committees to win a Republican majority in Congress.
The FEC's suit specifically charges that as early as 1989, GOPAC made expenditures and accepted contributions of more than $1,000 to influence federal elections - at a time when it was legally limited to state and local level political action.
For example, the suit says, GOPAC spent $958,000 on a 1989 direct-mail fund-raising drive called ''Campaign for Fair Elections.'' The letters asked donors to help GOPAC ''break the Democrats' stranglehold on power'' and ''restore honesty and decency to Congress.'' The letter ended: ''With your help, we can break the liberal Democrats' iron grip on the House of Representatives and build a Republican majority.''
In a second challenge to GOPAC operations, last week, the five Democrats and five Republicans on the House ethics committee voted unanimously to appoint an outside counsel to determine whether Gingrich violated tax codes by using GOPAC funds to finance a videotaped college course he taught called ''Renewing American Civilization.'' The course, the committee concluded, was designed to promote the GOP's national agenda.
In addition, the committee reprimanded Gingrich for letting a GOPAC consultant use his Congressional office, and using House floor speeches to promote his college course and a nationwide town meeting sponsored by GOPAC. The committee also criticized the aborted $4.5 million advance for his book ''To Renew America.''
But many Republicans insist that GOPAC was just one of many political machines that helped bring the Republicans to power. Hayley Barbour, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, said while GOPAC's training tapes and seminars were helpful, they were not an official part of the GOP campaign apparatus and never participated in RNC activities.
While GOPAC played a role in the GOP takeover of Congress, Mr. Barbour says, ''there's plenty of credit to go around.''
Other Republicans disagree. Indiana Rep. David McIntosh credits GOPAC with ''getting an entirely new group of people involved in politics who are not career politicians.'' GOPAC, he says, was the first group to capture the imagination of conservatives at the grass roots, and excite them about retaking Congress.
Freshman bumble bees
''Newt kept telling us that we are the majority,'' says Rep. Gutknecht, ''It was inspirational.'' Gutknecht likens the freshman class in the House to bumble bees. ''If you look at them aerodynamically, they can't fly,'' he says, ''but if you change their attitude, you can make them believe they can fly.'' That, he says, is what Gingrich accomplished.
Yet Gutknecht concedes that for all it did to help elect a new generation of Republicans, GOPAC was not the kind of grass-roots movement Rep. McIntosh described. ''GOPAC is more or less an insider's game,'' he says. ''Only one in 100 of my constituents ever heard of it.''
Mann maintains that although they can be very effective, ''top-heavy'' groups like GOPAC cannot effect lasting changes in government without a popular mandate. The 1994 GOP landslide, he argues, was less a reflection of GOPAC's power than how angry voters were at the Democrats.