Their rhetoric is reminiscent of the days of the general store, the honest politician and laissez-faire. But just watch some of the new small businessmen in action, Brooks Brothered lobbyists in highback leather chairs, savoring long cigars, and flaunting expense accounts at Le Bagatelle.

Small business people say that during the upcoming elections they will pose a curious challenge to the traditional political influence of big business and they expect to become a prominent political power of the 1980s, much like the women's movement and minorities.

Once part of the silent majority, they whispered complaints that sounded much like Rodney Dangerfield's punchline, "I don't get no respect." But lately they've been griping loudly, and politicians and candidates are returning their phone calls, answering their surveys, inviting them for consultations on issues such as inflation, overregulation and paperwork, and addressing their groups' meetings.

So-called small-business grassroots political organizing is enabling them to heat the heels of politicians "like a brushfire," one small businessman said. And those who don't heed the warning are in danger of getting burned, small business people and campaigners as well.

"Election reform has essentially eliminated the Fat Cat. More candidates have to cultivate small business as a sector," gloated Lewis A. Shattuck, executive vice president of the 41-year-old -- but until recently little-known -- Smaller Business Association of New England. When complaining on Capitol Hill about policies that were against them, "We used to just go down there and bleed on the witness stand," Shattuck continued. "Now we have more statistics on small businesses' contribution to the economy. We're becoming more organized."

"For years and years we sat back and looked at what organized labor can do in campaigns," Shattuck said "In another two to four years, we'll be as organized as organized labor."

"We've seen increasing activity on the part of small business in issues and lobbying on the hill and encouraging their members to get involved," said Charles Black, candidate Ronald Reagan's political director.

Small business is a force to contend with "simply because they are organizing," said Susan Morrison, press secretary for George Bush. But Morrison said that Bush hasn't specifically targeted his campaign toward small-business votes. "When you're only 3 percent in the polls, you go after everybody," Morrison said.

Democratic National Committee Deputy Chairman Robert A. Neuman recalled that during the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter recognized the importance of courting the nation's 80 million small-business owners and their employes, who make up 56 percent of the work force. Carter spoke "a lot of small-business rhetoric with his antipaperwork stance and calls for modification of" Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, Neuman said. Mentioning OSHA, perhaps small business' greatest enemy, to most owners can generate grimaces, grunts and tales of their colleagues held hostage by the agency's demanding regulations.

Carter backers boast of his fiscal conservatism and, although small business people traditionally vote Republican, "Democrats haven't written off that group," Neuman said.

And candidate John Connally, whose campaign is heavily supported by big business, regaled a small business group last summer when he repeated his oft-used probusiness theme of advocating a more favorable U.S. trade balance, particularly with the Japanese. If the Japanese don't buy more American goods, the United States should let them "sit on the docks of Yokohama in their own Toyotas watching their own television sets," Connally said. The crowds whooped and hollored at that one.

Even Gov. Jerry Brown of California, whose campaign promises include plans to "protect the earth, serve the people and explore the universe," talks about more productivity, "investment instead of borrowing and spending" and "national independence from foreign whim."

Some of his economic policies as governor of California have been termed conservative and pro-small business.

But then, in today's economic and anti-big-business climate, who would admit to being opposed to small business, an institution as revered and as American as expense accounts?

Like other emerging political forces which claim to hold any candidate's fate in their hands -- women, blacks, hispanics, labor, gays, antiabortioners, proabortioners, antinukers, pronukers -- the small business lobby gained its power from protest, particularly over inflation, regulation and taxes. In fact those subjects are the major issues so far -- outside of leadership -- in the campaign.

"All this antiregulation stuff is not because of you and me," said Republican National Committee spokesman Jack Mongoven. "It's the small-business people."

"They're frustrated, they're frightened and they're angry," said Wilson Johnson, president of the National Federation of Independent Business, in the group's offices in L'Enfant Plaza. Johnson was between a meeting with Office of Management and Budget Director James McIntyre and a briefing with presidential assistant Stuart Eizenstat. He launched into a popular small-business-versus-government atrocity story about a small businessman who beat the regulaton system, but wound up paying $30,000 in legal fees for the victory. 'Women are coming on with tremendous added influence, and we're coming along too, but we've got a long way to go," Johnson said.

But the NFIB, the small-business group best known to candidates and members of Congress, already has come along way politically. The group formed a political action committee last year to dole out contributions to its favorite candidates. It regularly publishes congressional voting records and whether each member favored small-business issues. Its lobbying force has grown from two persons 10 years ago to 11, and its officials expect to spend more than $2.5 million just in state level election activities.