Between boisterous greetings and political speculation, Rep. Al Ullman's supporters lowered their heads and spoke in hushed tones of Ullman's tough reelection fight.

"We're very, very concerned," whispered one woman who attened last night's fund-raiser for Ullman (D-Ore.). "Things are bad," she added, rolling her eyes.

Ullman, a 25-year veteran of the House and chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and his wife Audrey met some 300 guests at the 5 1/2-acre home of attorney Larry Hoffheimer in McLean. Standing alongside the outdoor pool, the Ullmans greeted friends and supporters and occasionally dodged squirts of water from the bug sweeper that was gliding across the pool.

"This is our hardest race," said Ullman. "It's because people are so angry and frustrated they are just voting against anybody who is in. If you had some power and authority, that makes you an even better target."

Ullman recently has backed off in his support for the value-added tax (VAT), a form of national sales tax. Yet he denies the move was the result of his challenge by right-wing Republican Dennis Harvey, who is campaigning on a tax slashing platform.

"We kind of ran it [VAT] by the American people. The VAT system doesn't seem to be working. But in the process, we ran across some alternatives and we're not going to give up on changing the tax structure."

Former Arkansas Rep. Wilbur Mills, who preceded Ullman as chairman of Ways and Means, munched seafood under the bright yellow tent and said he keeps abreast of tax legislation and opposes a tax cut now because it would be inflationary.

"In a recession, you have to give tax breaks to business and you can't do that in an election year," he said.

A diverse crowd of tax experts, attorneys, corporate representatives and supporters of special-interest groups munched hors d'oeuvres and drank cocktails at the $500-a-person fund-raiser.

Esther Coopersmith, public member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N., scanned the crowd and contemplated Ullman's influence. "People are like bees," she said. "They always gravitate to the honey."