HOUSTON -- When a Bush administration official announced several months ago that America's recession had bottomed out, Maryland's leading Republican, Helen Delich Bentley, got on the phone.
"What the hell are you people smoking?" the 2nd District congresswoman demanded of White House aides. "Do you really think the economy is improving?"
It was vintage Bentley, a performance that Republicans in Washington as well as in Maryland have come to expect.
But her abrasive style, honed during the days when her party had no hope of winning statewide offices, now strikes some GOP leaders as a potential obstacle to their continuing evolution as a force in Maryland, beginning in 1994.
Some of Mrs. Bentley's allies in Maryland have begun referring to her pointedly in recent months as the state's elder Republican stateswoman. But the 67-year-old congresswoman has no intention of reducing her role in the party she helped to rescue twice -- first from lack of interest among voters and then from the religious conservatives she thought cared more about their own agenda than victory.
Two years after Mrs. Bentley regained control, some party members are saying she, too, is allowing personal ambition to get in her party's way. She has suggested recently that she might run for governor in 1994 -- an ambition which seems inconsistent with her legislative career and which others fear might short-circuit the party's best candidates.
She would have substantial support.
"We're all scared to death of Helen Bentley. We have to stay in line," says Brenda Butscher, not entirely in gest. The Garrett County Republican says she would be a Bentley backer: "She's a tough lady. If she ran, I certainly would support her."
Other Republicans say privately that Mrs. Bentley has played too closely with Democrats such as Gov. William Donald Schaefer over the years. The time has come, they say, to start divorcing the party from these alliances, time to think of the party as an independent entity that needs less inter-party cooperation. The redoubtable Mrs. Bentley says she doesn't disagree. "We can win in 1994," she says, "if the race is handled properly."
What the party will need, she says, is a candidate who is willing to work hard and to evolve into a higher level of political competitiveness -- attributes she is not sure she sees in the candidates presenting themselves today.
Republicans at any level of government recognize what they call her controlling style. Her friends in Maryland call her "The B," a reference to her last name and to something else that goes unsaid.
"She's regarded as someone who's difficult to deal with, someone you treat with kid gloves," a party leader says.
Her approach is tolerated, even respected, because she kept her party from slipping into political oblivion early in the 1980s. After three arduous campaigns, she won her seat in Congress. And she has adroitly maneuvered valuable work for the shipyards she once covered as a reporter for The Sun -- and managed as member of the Federal Maritime Commission.
"Helen has never lost the common touch," says Carol A. Arscott, chairman of the Howard County Republican Central Committee. "She's never forgotten where she came from. She carries voter registration forms in her purse."
She went after the President of the United States with the vigor of an 18-year-old, determined to make him see the economic pain afflicting white-collar Towson and blue-collar Dundalk. She collared him during a social event at the White House. She cornered him in the back of limousines when he came to Maryland for official visits.
The woman called "The Fighting Lady" in Maryland became a marked person in the White House, where officials tried to keep her away from their boss -- at his request. "I was pushing," she concedes. "He told me once that he didn't think I believed in a kinder, gentler world. Told me more than once. I said, 'Mr. President I'm just giving you the facts of life.' " The facts were simple as far as Mrs. Bentley was concerned. "I'm not an economist but I know that we have to keep our people working in jobs that pay decent wages," she says.
Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, one of the leading early contenders for the party's gubernatorial nomination, gives Mrs. Bentley her due. "Every Republican in Maryland should be grateful to her for what she has done. She accepted the leadership of this party when it was not in the best shape," he says.
Which is not to say he concedes anything for 1994. "I think what you have to do is play your best team . . . It's too early to rule anyone out."
"Helen has certainly earned the right to be regarded as a revered elder stateswoman," says Carol Hirschburg, a former Bentley staffer. "I'm sure that when it is time for her to assume that role she will do so graciously."
Mrs. Bentley, though, said that she is anxious to think about new and broader challenges. She is thinking about the U.S. Senate, about governor, about being a promoter for Maryland.
She didn't mention elder stateswoman.