There was an odd feeling of Watergate deja vu when those first stories broke about a possible bugging. But this time the setting was the Republican National Committee headquarters -- and it was a high official who got suspicious. Mary Crisp, RNC co-chairman, had quietly called in a private firm to examine her offices after she repeatedly heard strange beeping sounds on her phone.

In the week that followed, a tangled, sometimes Looney-Tunes scenario unfolded as various electronics experts roamed the rooms of the RNC trying to prove whether or not Crisp had been bugged. One rumor was that right-wing sections of her own party might want to target the outspokenly pro-ERA Crisp. Such a suggestion is greeted with hoots from some right-wingers who caustically labeled Crisp as "merely slightly paranoid. "By the end of the week, a frustrated RNC official summed up the general conclusion: "This is probably one of those things that will never be solved."

The following tale is not a saga of bugsters and/or non-bugsters. It is rather a story about Washington in a presidential year -- the bitterness of factional political battles, people caught up in sometimes marky personality clashes and shifting alliances, the "ins" versus the "outs," the conservatives of the New Right versus ERA advocates. And it is about the kind of climate that has prevailed at the RNC in a period of extremely high tension as Reagan's conservative vanguard battled to oust RNC chairman Bill Brock. An atmosphere, one official said, of "almost paranoia." An atmosphere that would make Mary Crisp -- a Republican stalwart who slogged her way up from precinct-captain beginnings two decades ago and was soon to see it all end for her -- feel someone just might be out to get her . . .

"I love Mary . . ." Friends and acquaintances often speak that warmly of Crisp -- although some condescendingly follow up with "but" and then go on to paint her as lovable, dedicated, very savvy; a team player who never quite learned to play the war games of Washington politics.

Mary Crisp. It is almost Dickensian the way the name describes her so well. She is one neat package of well-groomed attractiveness. Lipstick and nail polish in rust tones to match her blouse. Blue eyeshadow. A quick smile on a patrician face that still, at 56, despite frown lines, retains some of the look of a pretty, curly-haired girl. Tennis shoes and socks are drying on the windowsill behind the exercise bike -- icons, practically, to her physical fitness regimen, which keeps her exceedingly trim. p

Her voice is firmly earnest when she is asked why she instituted the bugging detection proceedings. "I was really just thinking of myself. In hindsight everybody has all these great ideas. They may be right, I'm not disputing that. But I never heard those sounds before and I have lived here for over a year. And I never heard them on my office phone before, either." Friends were disturbed enough at the sounds to suggest she check it out. Crisp steadfastly refuses to speculate on who might have tapped her, but she says strongly, "It's like when there is a bomb threat. That's reason enough to leave the building, even though the dogs come and they find no bomb. So that's my reason -- and if people think I'm foolish, let them." She pauses but a moment. "If I had to do it again, I would."

When Crisp became co-chair and moved to Washington in 1977, her life was in turmoil and transition. There was a divorce that she still refers to as "devastating." She has lived these last three years in hotel rooms, first at the Mayflower, then the Shoreham. "I came with so many changes in my life that I had to deal with. The last thing I wanted was the responsibility of an apartment."

Much of her life is mirrored in her one cramped room. Pictures of her three grown children are stuck in the bureau mirror, a print from the International Women's Year Houston conference hangs over the double bed. Books pile on a hotel table -- "William Safire's Political Dictionary," "A Woman of Independent Means," "Who's Hiring Who," Creative Intimacy."

On her lapel is a gold GOP pin -- the O is the shape of the feminist symbol. Mary Crisp's relatively new-found feminism at times takes on the intensity of the convert. She metamorphosed the way thousands of women of her generation did, through the painful realities of their own experience.

Crisp's three-year-old divorce, after 28 years of marriage, was not of her own choosing. "I was really the classic, supportive woman. My priorities were family; children and husband first, then my volunteer work. I am now a transitional woman." She speaks solemnly of the countless number of older wives left on their own, often financially as well as emotionally adrift, repeating a line of the women's movement, "Many a woman is just one man away from welfare."

Crisp was of the era when women would even boast proudly that they were working on their Ph.T.: Putting Hubby Through college.He was the struggling med student, she the secretary provider. Then came Arizona and a successful practice as an Ob-Gyn. And Mary Crisp started her move from the lowest volunteer ranks of the Arizona Republican party to become that state's committeewoman and then the national party co-chair. Thunder on the Right

Crisp came to Washington as the Good Scout who, one former RNC member said, "never quite made the transition from Arizona politics to the big time." Some acquaintances see her as incapable of dissembling -- an attribute that often serves one well in politics -- and outmaneuvered.

"She's effectively been cut out of most major decisions in the past few years," says a former RNC aide who is loyal to Brock. "Her job is mostly as a figurehead. In order to not be ignored you have to always press and push. Crisp didn't know how." Pro-Crisp forces characterize Brock as freezing her out of decision-making. "Mary truly thought co-chair meant coequal. If she just sat there and looked pretty, everything was okay, but as soon as she aserted herself, there was trouble." One Reagan operatives goes so far as to say that Brock "hates her. She was constantly critical of the New Right and being uncooperative." Brock says coolly, "Generally, we worked reasonably well together. Mary did a great deal of work and was a real asset on the local level, which was a priority."

Right-wing and conservative forces have long been at odds with Crisp and snipe that she has long been anti-Reagan. For them the final blow came recently when Crisp praised the newly independent John B. Anderson -- hardly the proper show of fealty for a party leader, many felt. Two years ago Reagan's aide, Lyn Nofziger, unsuccesfully fielded a black woman, Gloria Toote, to challenge her incumbency. Some black GOP leaders opened a barrage of criticism against the woman, calling her "Reagan's proxy." Crisp had overwhelming support to handily beat Back Toote -- which prompted some pro-Crisp supporters to coin a little ditty, "Toote Toote Tootesy, Goodbye . . ." But times have definitely changed. Now, as one male moderate Republican who used to work at the RNC said, "The right-wingers can smell the White House. It was inevitable that she had to go. She was really swimming upstream with some of her positions in that crowd."

Everyone, including Crisp, realized she would be out as soon as Reagan was in. Three years ago she was critical of Reagan's political action committee as disruptive to the two-party system and for siphoning off funding from the party, a view shared by Brock at the time. This did not set well with the Reagan forces at all. The Women's Dilemma

Many of Crip's comments would have seemed insignificant -- or even been championed -- at a different time in the Republican Party. The demise of Crisp, in fact, points up a concern of many Republican women, such as those in the Republican Women's Task Force, now faced with the dilemma of supporting a presidential candidate who, for the first time in years, opposes the ERA. Reagan's audiences are often filled with the Stop ERA women with their large red buttons and their anti-abortion fetus signs. Reagan is trying to mollify opposing factions by saying he is for general equal rights -- without the amendment -- in the party platform. Pam Curtis, a longtime Republican, former RNC member and task force leader, said it is "very disheartening and very sad to have come this far and be faced with this. ERA is significant, not just for Republican women; consistently 54 percent of the American people favor the ERA. If I were Ronald Reagan I would look at this very hard." And Susan MacLaine, former chair of the task force, now running for Congress from New Hampshire, said, "In many ways, what's happened to Mary Crisp within the party is symbolic of what has happened to women who stood firm on the ERA. The task force was frozen out of some of the platform hearings. I think they just figured Reagan was going to be the nominee and to hell with the women."

Crisp recently publicly expressed her fears that Reagan would drop the pro-ERA plank that has been in the Republican platform since 1972. "That is anachronistic in this day and age." Reagan operatives, in turn, harshly paint her as an "ERA zealot." This, in turn, infuriates both some men and women at the RNC who echo the view that "Mary did not use her position only to push her views," One staffer said, "She traveled well over 300,000 miles on behalf of the party, going to fund-raisers, shaping seminars to get more people involved. She is beloved." Reagan operatives are capable of the most slashing of attacks. Asked why she might have felt she was bugged, one replied, "I have no way of judging the reaction of frustrated middle-aged women." Into Her Enemies' Hands

She knew, then, that it would be only a matter of time before it was "Goodbye, Ms. Crisp." After months of feeling like the outsider, of being relegated to considerably second-string duties at the upcoming convention, Crisp played right into the hands of her detractors. Just weeks before Reagan was to be anointed as the Republican nominee, Crisp publicly praised Anderson, the newly independent Republican. The Chicago Sun-Times hardly helped by incorrectly blaring a headline that said the RNC co-chair had "endorsed" Anderson.

Even Crisp's most loyal supporters characterize her comments about Anderson as unwise, inappropriate considering her position, and imprudent. A gloating Reagan aide said it was "dumb as hell."

Meanwhile, Brock was seem as a man going down for the third time and he was not about to throw a lifeline to Crisp. He was under fire in part because right-wingers felt he had let Crisp "run wild" with her pro-ERA positions. All factions agree that, as a Reagan aide said, Brock's sense of "self-survival" came to the fore. In some rough language and actions, Brock eased Crisp out and the ideologues won. Brock was pulled out of the water to stay on as RNC chairman.

When the Anderson story hit, Crisp's imminent demise became immediate. Brock fired off an angry memo that her comments were "totally inappropriate" commanded her to keep a "low profile." He then informed her that he would oppose her reelection as co-chair, that she would not host two convention events as planned and he ordered her welcoming remarks -- scheduled for the convention program -- removed. Crisp quickly announced that she would not seek reelection. The Anderson Remarks

It is almost peculiar that a woman so long in politics seems not to comprehend why her comments on Anderson should touch off firecrackers. Crisp's eyes widen. "I never endorsed Anderson. That is so inconsistent and incompatible with how hard I worked for this party! I have been a team player all along." But what of the quotes? That Anderson was the answer to the "big dilemma" facing Republican women and others who support the ERA. And that an Anderson victory is not "so farfetched." Her comments didn't stop there. Anderson was a "fiscal conservative" whose Republican credentials are "impeccable -- he only refuses to say he's content with Reagan's way of looking at problems." Yes, she said all of that, but it was "no endorsement."

A close friend sighs and says, "It wwould be fine or anyone else but the co-chair to talk like that."

It is often said that "Mary Crisp is no Ellie Peterson or Mary Louise Smith," both consummate pros who moved to the top in the Republican Party.

Smith, who moved from co-chair to chair of the RNCfrom 1974 to 1977 and is now Iowa's national committeewoman, is an artful diplomat who picks her words as if she were moving through a mine field. Is there any Republican she could not support for president? "Probably not." She intends to fight to retain the ERA plank in the platform but that is not at all incompatible with "wholeheartedly" supporting Reagan. "I feel that certain issues are important but I'm also very responsive to party discipline." To discuss an Anderson in terms that would "even remotely suggest an alternative -- you just can't do that in that position. I will continue simultaneously with my support for Gov. Reagan to push for the ERA. Sometimes these things take a good deal of working through. You have to have a good feel for the entire picture." Smith recently beat back a Reagan challenge to her position. How? The voice is sweetly pleasant. "It was very simply put down by the strength of my supporters -- and my willingness, if need be, to take to the floor of our [state] convention."

Crisp was strongly supported by Smith for co-chair. Crisp had been her secretary at the 1976 convention; prime-time viewers saw her calling the roll. Crisp rehearsed for that role for weeks, learning the exact pronunication of every name in case there would be a challenge and she would have to call the state name by name.

"Mary was very well accepted by a great many people," said Smith. In a world where mentors help, Crisp had no one sponsor as she moved up in Arizona politics. "She came out of a strong background of organizational structure," said Smith.

Crisp was actively for Gerald Ford and although the staunchly conservative Arizona Republican party went for Reagan in 1976 they reelected Crisp as their national committeewoman. "She was well-liked by most in all factions then," said an Arizona friend. "She was just a very hard worker." The Stop-ERA Backlash

Crisp smiles a bit ruefully as she recalls just how much a team player she had always been. "In 1961 I got into politics. I read a book called 'The Capitalist Manifesto' and the theme struck me; if you want to make a difference in your community and your life, get involved in politics, because it affects whatever you do." Her three children -- now in their 20s -- were infants and so she put aside a dream of running for the state legislature and worked as a volunteer. Looking back, she says: "I'm really proud of what I've done and how far I came."

She smiles a "how-times-have-changed" smile when she recalls her first ERA feelings. "I was just beginning my term in 1973 and here was the RNC on the national level taking this pro-ERA position. Being naive in terms of national politics, I suppose, I thought this was the thing to do. I testified at the House-Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on behalf of the ERA because that was my Party's position on a national level." Was it out of conviction, too? She looks back on her days then as the happy wife of the wealthy physician and says, "I hadn't really given it much thought. I think it was just the beginning of my awareness." Then the bomb hit. "What a rude awakening! I was shot down by members [in Arizona] of my own party. I guess the people who heard me testify never forgot it." The Stop ERA backlash was beginning. Today, Crisp says with infinite dislike that Phyllis Schlafly was there and "that was the first time I ever saw her. She took hold of this. Such an opportunist, such a zealot. Money is at the root of all that opposition. The average woman earns 59 cents on every dollar a man earns. And so there is heavy business opposition. They're in it [opposition to Era] for the profit." Speak No Evil

Crisp seems uncertain of her future now. She has an "ongoing committment to help women -- because they need it." She might start a "third stage" of her life in the corporate world.

Was her activism in part a cause of her divorce? "Oh no," she says emphatically. There is lingering sadness. She waves her hand in the air, closing the door on her private life, "I just don't want to talk about it."

Looking back, she has no regrets that she took her job as co-chair. "My private life just flew apart. I was apprehensive about taking on this job -- but it was the best thing that happened. It's been a lifesaver. Politics has been very good to me -- and I've been good to it."

For two hours she has been steadfast in speaking no ill of Reagan, Brock, the party, the attitudes of some about her calling in the electronics people. She throws her head back and laughs hard. "I'm no crazy lady, I can assure you. Just look at my years of hard work, my record."

A friend says, "You can't find a more decent person. The sad thing is she cares so much. I just sometimes wish she'd learn to relax more and stop thinking about doing so much for others."

Now, finally, there is a look of sadness. Crisp insists she will go the convention even though there is no role for her there. "The nominee," she said, still not mentioning Reagan by name, "chose the chair to stay on. He did not choose me. I am not seeking reelection because that's the politics of it."

There still seems to be no understanding that she herself -- through her expressed views -- played a part in her unhappy end. "This is really the world of politics I'm involved in. One has to expect it." As she closes the door to her one room, Mary Crisp repeats, as if still trying to convince herself, "It's all politics as usual.But I am still vulnerable. It hurts."