PHOENIX (AP) _ These should be the best of times for the National Rifle Association.

Its lobbyists are working with the most sympathetic Congress in years, if not decades. It has won some important battles in state legislatures. Its membership is at an all-time high.

But as it opened its annual meeting here Friday, the NRA found itself under attack both from without and within.

In Washington, President Clinton urged leaders of the organization to give up donations it received in response to a fund-raising letter that referred to federal agents as ``jack-booted government thugs.''

The NRA issued a seven-word response giving no indication whether any action would follow. ``We thank the president for his suggestion,'' was all the statement said.

Clinton accused NRA leaders of ``giving aid and comfort to criminals who are really the enemy.'' Earlier this month, former President Bush resigned from the NRA over the fund-raising letter.

At the annual meeting, splayed across two large hotels and the Phoenix Convention Center, renegade members of the organization made themselves visible to condemn the NRA's leadership for its financial management and militant politics.

``They're in deep trouble,'' said former NRA board member Dave Edmondson, who stood sentry outside the convention's press room, speaking to all who would listen. ``They can put a smiley face on it all they want to, but they're in deep trouble.''

It was a smiling face that Tanya Metaksa, the NRA's chief lobbyist, put forth as she discussed the group's status in its 124th year. Considered one of the NRA's hard-liners, Metaksa is among the leaders who are accused by moderates like Edmondson of hijacking a once-staid sporting organization and pushing it to the right-wing fringes.

She insisted that the NRA is both united and robust, enjoying its highest-ever membership of 3.5 million and remaining true to its mission of upholding a constitutional right to bear arms.

``There's no struggle for the soul of the NRA,'' she said. ``There's no schism. ... If anything, the leadership of this organization is more united than it's ever been in its history.''

As for Clinton's criticisms of the NRA _ both for distributing the fund-raising letter that criticized federal agents and for boasting that the letter was likely to bring in more than $1 million in donations _ she was dismissive.

``We're not ashamed,'' she said. ``What we've been calling for for two years is a look at federal law enforcement agencies and reported abuses. We will continue to call for that, and we believe there will be an in-depth look.''

The NRA has called for congressional hearings to examine the actions of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, especially in the raids on white separatist Randy Weaver in Idaho and on the Branch Davidian cult in Texas.

But its attacks have drawn something of a backlash in the aftermath of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Authorities say the bombing was the work of militants outraged over the deaths of Branch Davidians.

Richard Aborn, president of Handgun Control Inc., was in Phoenix on Friday to criticize the NRA for the fund-raising letter and urge congressional leaders to halt the group's push to repeal a ban on assault rifles.

He said the NRA has lost the respect it once had as a shooting and hunting organization in its move to become an unyielding lobbying force.

``The best example of that is the resignation of George Bush,'' Aborn said at a news conference.

The fund-raising letter that has drawn so much heat was written before the bombing. In it, the NRA's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, spoke of the group's enemies in Congress, who helped pass a ban on some semi-automatic assault weapons.

``It doesn't matter to them that the semi-auto ban gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our Constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us,'' he wrote.

LaPierre apologized earlier this week, saying he hadn't meant to cast aspersions on all federal law officers. But many in the NRA believe his language was accurate, if perhaps a little overheated. Metaksa dismissed the whole controversy as ``a huge media flap, fueled by those who would deny Americans their rights.''

She noted that the NRA has won battles in eight state legislatures over the past two years, pushing through laws that allow people to carry guns in public. ``We've had absolutely astounding successes in that arena,'' she said.

However, as Edmondson noted, that NRA has also lost battles over the assault weapon ban and the Brady Law, which restricted handgun sales.

Referring to the current leadership, he said, ``Since they've been in power, we've lost every major legislative battle. They have totally failed, and I see no way it can get better.''