FAITH WHITTLESEY is the new woman to watch out for in the White House, but so far the men aren't sure what to make of her. She's the president's assistant for public liaison, a rare Reagan conservative among the Ivy League moderates who run the West Wing. She's also two years behind them, and often pipes up with questions they resolved long ago.

On her second day on the job, she fired six people--leaving her with a skeleton staff and a workload to drown in. She looks a lot different from the rest of them, too: fresh-faced, freckled, a Talbot's-style dresser in ruffled blouses and tweed suits. In interviews she can get so nervous that her hands shake. The men, increasingly impatient, are wondering when she'll do something.

They may be surprised.

Whittlesey is a streetfighter who likes to get her own way. She once had an argument with a political opponent that was so bitter she shoved him out of her Delaware County, Pennsylvania, office. She fought with former Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, too, and Lewis, a fellow Pennsylvania Republican, got so mad he recruited somebody to run against her for lieutenant governor. Another time she called a political enemy "a snake." When it turned up in print the next week, she said she'd been speaking off the record. She jokingly referred to it as "The Saga of the Dragon Lady."

But can the Dragon Lady cut it at the White House, home of the nation's most internecine office politics? She's in charge of mobilizing special interest groups--blacks, women, Jews, labor, business, Indians, farmers, even Eskimos--behind the president. The office under her predecessor, Elizabeth Dole, was viewed by many as a weak one. Now, it could be one of the most crucial jobs in a reelection campaign, particularly since Reagan's support among those groups has eroded. Whittlesey herself rose up from the working class, the traditional Democratic constituency that moved for the president in 1980 but is now slipping away. She says she knows how it feels to stretch a thin budget; her father, who worked on the docks loading freight, never made more than $100 a week.

"We're pinning a lot of hope on her," says the communications director David Gergen.

"Sure, it's difficult for someone coming in cold," says James A. Baker III, the White House chief of staff who brought her in. "But you give her a chance--and you watch."

"This is like any other job except all the people have famous names," Whittlesey says. "I know I'm coming into it at a difficult time. But that makes it more appealing to me."

She's in her office, the one on the second floor of the West Wing done in pale yellow and chintz. It's already filled with antiques from her own collection: several 18th-century Dutch marquetry chairs, two Italian chests, a four-foot-high Japanese palace urn. "But it's not done yet," she says.

Friends and former colleagues describe her as brilliant, magnetic, tireless, driven and high strung. She is 44, a widow, still strongly influenced by a mother who told her she must be "the best." Raised in an upstate New York housing project, Whittlesey became a Kennedy Democrat at Wells College, then switched to the Republican Party after working as a lawyer in the welfare system. She was the ambassador to Switzerland, a Pennsylvania state legislator and a political boss who beat the Delaware County "War Board," one of the nation's toughest political machines. She often finishes someone else's sentences with an impatient "yes, yes, yes."

But there is a vulnerability to her, in part because she is so intense that you just want to make her relax. "A high-voltage personality," is how Gergen puts it. "It's hard for me to make casual conversation with the president," she says, "because he's such an awesome figure, as president." Her colleagues in the Pennsylvania legislature found her gullible enough to tease with made-up stories, laughing with her when she finally caught on.

But in interviews she is articulate and impressive, eager to talk about the foreign debt crisis or tell how she promoted the sale, while ambassador, of the American M-1 tank to the Swiss. She has also mastered the politician's art of candor, which is to admit the obvious but no more. Thus, on Elizabeth Dole: "It has never been communicated to me that they were not happy with her or the office. I've just heard that from lots of people on the outside."

She is gracious, to a point. "Charming may not be the word I would use to describe her," says William Scranton III, the Pennsylvania scion who beat her for lieutenant governor. "She can be friendly and engaging, but a lot of the appeal is intellectual."

She is not one of the girls. "She thinks like a man," says Sandra Cornelius, the friend whom Whittlesey appointed Delaware County Human Services Coordinator. "Most of her conversations are about work and advancement. We don't talk about tea and what we're having for dinner. It's more--'What's the action on this bill?' "

Sometimes even the boys got tired of that, particularly when Whittlesey would have dinner with them while the Pennsylvania legislature was in session. "A lot of times, we weren't too interested in talking about the legislative happenings of the day," says Matt Ryan, the minority leader. "But it was hard to get her off of it."

It was while she was in the state legislature in 1974 that she learned that her husband, Roger, had been found by a babysitter in the car in their Haverford garage, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 35, a Main Line Philadelphia man who had run for office himself and lost, then founded his own advertising business and successfully marketed his wife for the legislature. Whittlesey says the suicide was triggered by an overnight business failure.

"I was very much in love with him," Whittlesey says. "We had our problems, everybody does, but he was an enormously exciting person to live with." She has raised three sons on her own, and now insists on leaving the White House at the early hour of 6 p.m. to see that the one son who's at her Wesley Heights home gets his dinner. Everyone, friends and one-time political enemies alike, say she's a great mother. "I can't stay here and work all night long the way these people do," she says. "Many people around here have wives at home, or they don't have children. I feel hobbled in a way. I wouldn't call my child a hobble, but I have to perform with one arm tied behind my back."

At the same time, she tends to see other women, at least those she encountered with her mother-in-law at the women's auxiliary meetings in the mid-'60s, as cultural stereotypes. "I used to get frustrated because I wanted to be where the action was," she says. "I felt that in some of those meetings an extraordinary amount of time was spent on things like the menu."

She doesn't get along with the women who lead the feminist movement, either, and once told an interviewer: "That's all right, because I have never been at ease with women. My best friends, from the earliest years, were boys and men."

"No," she says now, "no, no. No. No, no. That's at ease with women's groups, not at ease with women. I like women. I can talk about babies and diapers, and did."

But she has already aggravated some of the women's group leaders who have met with her at the White House. Although she's in favor of abortion, she opposes the ERA, considers many of the social programs that the movement supports as too expensive and terms some of the "rhetoric" as "counter-productive." "I'm sure I wouldn't have had all the opportunities I've had without some women out there being noisy about it," she says. "But that's not my interest."

"I don't know how long it's going to take her to realize that you don't insult the constituency by saying in the press that you're not involved in any of their issues--and never have been," counters Kathy Wilson, a Republican, and the president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "It puts people off. And I don't think an appropriate response to women's issues is, 'We're working on the economic recovery, and when the economy improves, women's lives will improve.' I just was not impressed with her enthusiasm for moving the agenda."

Whittlesey is one of those women who says she got where she did without the agenda. "I think there's a lot more women out there can do," she insists, "if they just get on with it." But she does complain about sexism directed specifically at her, particularly when people used to describe her as ruthless. "I don't do anything that's not standard in politics," Whittlesey says. "And people have played hardball against me. But I'm a woman, you see."

If Ronald Reagan runs for reelection, Whittlesey has to pull together a staff, come up with strategies for mobilizing the important interest groups, then implement those strategies. None of that can be done without the support of White House political operators, most particularly Baker. He appears to be behind her, at least publicly, but others on the senior staff are complaining that Whittlesey fired the six staff members too fast. She admits her small staff is now "an enormous problem," she says she hopes to have some new appointments this week.

She defends her firings, arguing: "Is it better to let people hang in uncertainty for three weeks? Or three months? And then go behind their backs interviewing?" The firings, she adds, had the approval of Baker.

Colleagues say she's mostly silent at the morning senior staff meetings, hanging back until she gets the feel of it. But in smaller sessions Whittlesey doesn't hesitate to break in. Once when Gergen was arguing that the White House should push forward on equity for women in pension plans but not in insurance policies, Whittlesey came right back at him, saying they should hold off on both because they didn't have enough information about them--and that they were expensive, anyway. Gergen and a few others at the meeting were taken aback, particularly because the president said in his State of the Union address this year that the administration "will take action to remedy inequities in pensions."

"She's basically jumping in whenever she wants to," says another adviser, "and then relating her experience to either Pennsylvania or Switzerland. It's not relevant."

It's hard to know how much of this criticism is inspired by sexism, by being the new assistant in the West Wing or by an honest assessment of her ability. "I cannot honestly say that I have encountered anything that I regard as hostility or being cut out of anything," says Whittlesey. "I've always found in my life that I will be consulted to the extent that my advice is of value in the predominately male world in which I have lived professionally."

It was a world that was never easy. When she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania law school in 1963, Whittlesey says she was told to not even bother with the interviewers from the law firms because they'd never hire a woman. She worked instead as a teacher in a South Philadelphia high school. "I saw the children of the welfare system before my eyes," she says. "I saw the failure of the solution."

She became a lawyer for the welfare department, where her job was to collect money from welfare cheats. Then, as an assistant U.S. attorney, she prosecuted Vietnam draft dodgers. At the same time, she switched her reading from The New Republic to The National Review. "It was an evolution that took place over a period of time," she says. "Working in government made me skeptical of government."

She and her husband, Roger, soon dove into Republican politics. After he lost a 1966 race for the state legislature in a Democratic district, the two moved to Haverford to find a political home. It was a Main Line suburb within the conservative middle- and working-class area of Delaware County. But when supporters approached Roger Whittlesey to run again for the legislature in 1972, he turned them down, saying he was too busy with his advertising agency. "But I said, 'Well, you may not be interested, but I am,' " says Whittlesey. "It took him a couple of days to think about it, and then he decided he really liked the idea."

She was pregnant, but rang doorbells for five months. She and her husband financed the campaign themselves, using direct mail, election-day flyers and "Faith" potholders--techniques unheard of in Delaware County. "Maybe other people have said that he created me, but we did it together," says Whittlesey.

We were friends as well as husband and wife."

A month before the April 1974 primary election of her second term, her husband committed suicide. She didn't campaign again until September, but was reelected in a year when the Republican Party collapsed nationally and in Pennsylvania as well. "I had to go out and do something," she says. "It was an all-consuming life, and it prevented me from feeling sorry for myself. Politics was a kind of refuge."

She never finished her term, but went back to run for county office in 1975 because the party wanted to prevent a Democratic take-over after Watergate. As chairman of the County Commission, she fired 300 people and for years ran a government with a budget of $62 million and more than 2,000 employes. She fought often and hard with the old bosses, usually over who should get jobs within the organization. Critics said she had created her own machine.

"She turned the party upside down as far as hustling," says John McNichol, a powerful county leader whom she fought with. "But Faith was never satisfied with the status quo. She was impatient with people who weren't as ambitious as she was . . .

"But I got a kick out of her. It's like having a lead dog on your sled. He knows where he's going, he's strong as hell, but he's no good if he drops dead. Faith sometimes has to hold back."

In 1978 she ran for lieutenant governor, losing to Scranton, the man Lewis recruited. Lewis says he was mad because Whittlesey refused to support him when he was thinking about running for governor. "I wasn't being completely vindictive," he says now. But Whittlesey says Lewis was mad at her because she'd refused to turn over her Reagan delegates to Gerald Ford--who was Lewis' candidate--at the 1976 convention. As Rick Robb, a former right-hand man to Lewis, recalls:

"She'd come into a meeting in Kansas City, look you right in the eye and say, 'Look, Ford is a loser. If we nominate him, we're going right down the chute. I think the leadership in this room is making a big mistake.' That's something that people in politics just don't do--tell you what they think."

She took the loss for lieutenant governor hard. "She retreats into herself, licks her wounds, gets angry," says Cornelius. "She was depressed for a long time."

In 1980 she helped get Reagan elected, and then, with Lewis' political help (the two had long since made up) became ambassador to Switzerland. She says she didn't spend the whole time skiing, but instead turned what could have been a vacation into a fascinating job. "I loved it," she says. "There were so many things going on. We had the arms control negotiations, and the whole debate about our relationship in the Atlantic Alliance." This is one job where she gets uniformly great reviews.

"Let's say we were up at 8 a.m., and negotiating all morning," says John Fedders, an official with the Securities and Exchange Commission who came to help negotiate a legal problem between the SEC and the Swiss Bank. "Next there's a fancy lunch at the embassy, and then we negotiate all afternoon. Then there's a fancy dinner, and it's now 10 o'clock at night and we have to plan for the next day. Everybody else wants to do it in half an hour, and she's prepared to go over it in microscopic detail for several hours. She's tireless."

There was also some gossip that Whittlesey got the job because she had a Swiss boyfriend.

"Oh, that's ridiculous," she says, looking as if she doesn't know whether to laugh or hiss. "I had a German boyfriend. He was not anything. I suppose it adds some spice to my life."

Is she seeing anyone?

"It's nothing that I would want to discuss in public," she says. "I have very little time for it . . . Since I've been here, I think I've spent maybe 20 minutes in a woman's clothing store and maybe 10 minutes in a shoe store. I bought two blouses and a pair of shoes and a purse. I decided I was absolutely desperate."

But why, finally, did she take this job?

"I like politics," she says.

But it doesn't pay as well as a job in business.

"No, it doesn't pay well."

And she had to move from Switzerland, and she has to listen to everybody's complaints, and she doesn't have enough influence at the White House.

"Right, right, right," she says.

So why?

She smiles. "I like challenges."

"She wanted to be back in the mainstream," says John McNichol, her old adversary. "And you can bet your boots she'll be involved in the campaign. Faith is a political animal. When controversy is missing, she has a tendency to make it happen."