Vin Weber was Newt Gingrich's best friend before everybody was the House speaker's best friend.

During the 1980s, the two Republican congressmen counseled each other through rocky marriages: Weber coaxed Newt and Marianne to work things out; Gingrich helped his Minnesota colleague recover from a divorce.

As Gingrich stood on an empty House floor, lobbing bombs at the Democratic "welfare state" for the benefit of C-SPAN viewers, Weber was his behind-the-scenes strategist. And it was Weber who managed the Georgian's 1989 campaign to be House Republican whip. The two-vote victory put Gingrich in line for the speaker's job.

"He's got a lot of `best friends' now," Weber said recently. "But I was his best friend when he not only wasn't speaker of the House, he was sort of a disreputable backbencher."

Now, the friendship has new meaning for Weber, who has built a successful lobbying and consulting career since quitting Congress 2 1/2 years ago. Last fall's election not only swept Gingrich and the GOP into power, it also transformed Weber into one of the best-connected people in Washington.

His bonds with Gingrich and other GOP leaders are bringing him extraordinary access and a lengthening list of corporate clients eager to capitalize on what Weber calls his "unique understanding" of the speaker's thinking.

"It's like hitting a gusher," said Charles Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. "The guy clearly could not be better situated."

Indeed, Weber's connections to House Republican leaders may be unrivaled. If Gingrich is busy, Weber can phone any of the five of his own former aides and associates who now work for the speaker, including Dan Meyer, Gingrich's chief of staff. He can dial three Minnesotans who work for House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. Or he can talk with his ex-colleagues who are now powerful committee chairmen. He has Senate ties, too, now that he is a codirector of the presidential campaign of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan.

Weber's transition from a public to a private role in Washington offers a glimpse of a time-honored political tradition. He has joined legions of retired government officials in Washington and state capitals - among them former Minnesota Reps. Gerry Sikorski, a Democrat, and Tom Hagedorn, a Republican - in becoming a lobbyist and benefiting from friendships built during years in office.

Lobbying is perfectly legal. Often, lobbyists contribute to the legislative process by helping members of Congress quickly gather facts and hear arguments from all sides. Increasingly, however, the migration of ex-legislators to lobbying jobs has brought criticism from Ross Perot, from activists and from disenchanted citizens who view politics as a money-driven system in which business is done with a wink or a nod.

Since registering as a lobbyist, Weber has faced a kind of criticism that he rarely encountered during 12 years representing Minnesota's mostly rural Second District in the House.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader complains that Weber is "turning a taxpayer-funded asset - his experience and his contacts as congressman - into a private, self-enrichment asset."

"Weber is not your usual furtive, cloaked lobbyist," Nader said. "He plays many roles. He's Gingrich's outside ambassador on radio and TV shows. He's kind of an independent adviser to Gingrich and others. People hire Weber because he's got the ear of top Republicans who control the House."

Lewis said that when special interests hire big-name lobbyists, it creates "an undemocratic situation . . . where the wealthy can afford the biggest names and the others can't get in the door. And Weber is Exhibit A of that in 1995."

Others, including former Rep. Bill Frenzel of Minnesota, defend Weber's move into lobbying, noting that he is widely regarded for his decency, forthrightness and thoughtful style.

Still, Weber sometimes appears sheepish about his new role and stresses that he limits his direct lobbying. "I'm making lots of money, but not a third of what I could have made if I had gone with one of the big lobbying firms," he said.

He acknowledged that he is attempting a difficult balancing act by trying to maintain a high public profile while representing private companies.

One minute he's cochairing a policy forum at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs along with former Rep. Tim Penny, D-Minn., or serving as a commentator on public television's "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour." Or he's working on his book for the Progress and Freedom Foundation, analyzing the political forces that will dominate in the future.

The next minute, he's running the four-person Washington office of the New York consulting firm of Clark & Weinstock and huddling with clients - among them AT&T; a coalition of large health insurers that includes Minneapolis-based United Health Care Corp.; three waste disposal companies, and Minnesota-based West Publishing Co.

"It's hard to be in both worlds," Weber said.

He seems to have managed fairly well. Since he quit Congress, his stature and his net worth have soared. He is a millionaire, thanks to stock options he received for serving on one of six corporate boards. He is a sought-after political commentator, appearing frequently on public television and on other network news programs. And at 43, he is a Republican Party elder.

While he insists that he has no plans to seek public office again, he acknowledges that he would be strategically situated to run for the Minnesota governorship when Arne Carlson steps down in 1998.

Weber has risen to "a level where most people hope to be when they're 60," said a friend and political ally, Minnetonka lawyer Tony Trimble. In contrast to some older statesmen, Trimble said, "Vin is a statesman with a future."

Economic decision Weber said his decision to turn lobbyist was purely economic: He needed to make a living. "I wish I had lots of other kinds of offers coming over the transom, but there weren't," he said.

Frenzel, a Republican who retired as Minnesota's Third District congressman in 1990, defends Weber's decision. "The Constitution guarantees citizens the right to petition the legislature," he said, "so I don't see why citizens should not have a little professional guidance to do so."

Frenzel said Weber should make "a darned good lobbyist because he is a strategic thinker," unlike some other ex-legislators who "pad around the halls of Congress interminably, getting in the way of the current crop of congressmen."

While setting up a consulting practice after leaving office in 1993, Weber collected a $150,963 salary as vice chairman of the think tank Empower America, which he formed that winter with former GOP Rep. Jack Kemp and Reagan-era Education Secretary William Bennett. But Kemp said that the next year, Weber "voluntarily took himself off salary because we didn't have any money."

His consulting business soon drew him into a flap. He approached Gingrich on behalf of a company seeking U.S. government support to help influence the Israeli government's trade policies. Afterward, Lewis' Center for Public Integrity - a watchdog group that has criticized practices of Democrats as well as of Republicans - charged that Weber had violated a one-year ban on former members' lobbying Congress. Weber denies his contacts violated the law.

Last fall, while still operating the Weber Group, his one-man consulting firm, Weber began looking around. He interviewed with five big-name law firms and lobby houses but did not like the idea of becoming a full-time, press-the-flesh Capitol Hill lobbyist. The day after the GOP election sweep, he said, "my phone began to ring from people I'd never heard of before."

He eventually decided to join Clark & Weinstock, a smaller New York firm that appealed to him because it focuses on giving clients strategic advice rather than on traditional lobbying.

Weber's broad advice includes urging clients that usually donate to liberal-leaning think tanks to "even it up a little," by giving to conservative groups whose policy positions now carry more weight. Three of his clients - AT&T, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and West Publishing - are on a list of companies that gave an average of $23,283 this year to the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a group set up by Gingrich.

Weber agrees that his ties to the speaker's office are "a big attraction . . . there's no denying that." But rather than trying to pull strings, he prefers offering clients "insights into how the House Republicans think, or what messages might move them."

Weber said his firm first "tried to tell people not to hire us to lobby, but it became very clear early on that that is not feasible."

He worries, though, that continual courting of Gingrich for clients might make the speaker uncomfortable and damage their friendship. "If he needs advice," Weber said, "I want him to feel free to call me."

Weber and his wife, Cheryl, still socialize with Gingrich, occasionally entertaining him at their home in Arlington, Va., with a dinner of beef and the speaker's favorite brew, Guinness Stout.

Legislative battles As a lobbyist, Weber has had his successes. For example, he appears to be gaining ground in a battle with local governments seeking to require that waste be disposed at facilities offering the greatest environmental benefits. Counties in dozens of states turned to Congress after a federal court stripped them of such authority. Their proposed remedy would shift business away from landfills, which counties consider the last resort for disposal, and back to facilities owned by local governments, such as Hennepin County's $100 million incinerator.

Weber said he has an uphill fight to block the counties' bill on behalf of industry giant Browning Ferris Industries Inc. and two other companies that own landfills. Weber's efforts have helped narrow the legislation to cover only counties in which the court decision threatens financial losses.

In one case, Weber's name alone was enough to get action. Just ask Kevin Sabo, general counsel to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. Sabo said he inserted a provision to benefit West Publishing in the proposed Paperwork Reduction Act in February because another West lobbyist, Steve Ryan, told him that Weber was pushing it. "I took that as meaning that this was an issue that the Republican Party would support because the leadership would have so much regard for Mr. Weber," Sabo said.

Weber said he did no lobbying on the measure, which the committee rejected.

Weber's new vocation has caused him embarrassment, such as an incident in February after Gingrich vowed to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is barred by law from lobbying Congress, agreed to pay Weber's firm $100,000 for advice. But when Weber announced to the CPB board that he "had dinner with the speaker last night," CPB Director Victor Gold fumed that labeling Weber a consultant was "disingenuous. . . . This is obviously a lobbying operation and we can't do it.

"It was hiring a close friend of the speaker's in order to ingratiate ourselves," said Gold, a Republican appointee. "If Vin Weber is not lobbying, he's not worth a thing."

Weber calls the episode a misunderstanding and complains that he "was shafted by the CPB," which his firm released from the contract.

Few regrets Were Weber still in Congress, "he most likely would be the House majority leader," said Gingrich aide Dan Meyer.

But Weber has few regrets and relishes spending weekends with his wife and daughters, Lauren, 4, and Jacqueline, 3. He said the press of his congressional schedule was a big reason for the breakup of his first marriage.

He also no longer has the kind of financial worries that led him to bounce 125 checks while a congressman. While his net worth was about $200,000 when he left office, things changed overnight.

Corporate takeover expert Theodore Forstmann, a friend of Jack Kemp, invited Weber to serve on the board of Minneapolis-based Department 56, a marketer of porcelain collectibles that Forstmann, Little & Co. had just acquired. Weber got the same deal as other directors - options to buy 30,000 shares of common stock in the company at $3.30 a share.

"I told my wife I thought we'd died and gone to heaven," Weber recalled. "I knew it was going to be worth a lot."

Today, the stock is trading at more than $42 a share, and Weber's holdings are worth $1.2 million. "It's mind-boggling," Weber said. "But it's wholly legitimate."

Indeed, no one has suggested anything untoward about the arrangement. Weber said he never even knew Forstmann while he was in office. He said Forstmann has for years invited prominent ex-government officials, such as former Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis and Robert Strauss, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, to serve as directors with the lure of stock options.

Suddenly flush with cash, the Webers are building a four-bedroom log cabin on Minnesota's Leech Lake.

The project has sparked speculation that Weber is securing state residency to run for governor. But Weber in recent weeks has become increasingly firm in dismissing such talk. "I'm thoroughly convinced that I'm not going to run for governor in 1998," he said, explaining that he always planned to build a vacation home in Minnesota.