Cathleen Crowell Webb slouched in the back seat of a midnight-blue limousine this morning as it sped along the empty city streets. Every corner newsstand was selling her story and photograph. No one, though, could see her face behind the smoked glass window.

Like a film star in town to tout the latest masterpiece, Cathy Webb was making the celebrity circuit, the "Today" show with Jane Pauley at 7:08, the "CBS Morning News" with Bill Kurtis at 8:10. And as she sipped fresh orange juice in the waiting room at CBS, representatives from People magazine and the Phil Donahue show cooled their heels in the lobby.

But Webb's is a terrible sort of celebrity, a fame comprising colossal guilt, pain and religious belief. She is waging, through the courts and the press, a campaign to free from jail a quiet, gaunt man whom she accused of raping her eight years ago.

Webb tried to appear relaxed while fielding questions on the air, but in the CBS waiting room she was clearly a drained woman.

With her eyes fixed on the carpet and the color rising in her childlike face, Webb said, "Gary Dotson deserves an explanation for what I did back then. I won't rest until he's out of jail. Some people ask how I can take all the attention, but I wouldn't trade my place. I don't regret coming forward."

Gary Dotson, a 28-year-old high-school dropout, has served nearly six years of a 25-to-50-year sentence in Joliet Correctional Center outside Chicago. He is not eligible for parole until 1988.

At the trial in 1979, Webb testified in convincing detail that on July 9, 1977, Dotson and two other youths abducted her as she left her job in a fast-food restaurant outside Chicago and raped her.

Last week Webb completely recanted her original testimony. She told Judge Richard L. Samuels of Cook County Circuit Court that she had never been raped, that she made up the story because she feared she had become pregnant after having sexual relations with a former boyfriend, that the bruises on her body were self-inflicted. Samuels, who presided over the case originally, cited legal precedent and conflicting testimony from other Dotson supporters and denied the motion to free him.

"There is a sufficient lack of corroboration of this recantation," Samuels said after his ruling last Thursday. "I don't know for what reason Cathy Webb got up on the stand and told what she did. That's only known to her."

Now, Dotson's lawyer can take the case to a higher court.

Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson could also grant Dotson a pardon, erasing the conviction, or executive clemency, releasing him on the grounds that he has been sufficiently punished. Dotson's mother Barbara, who wept in court as her son was ordered back to jail last week, has helped launch a petition drive urging a pardon.

"But, it's not a pardon we want," Webb said. "We want to see Gary Dotson's name totally cleared. Totally. He didn't do anything wrong."

Next to the various icons of morning television, Cathy Webb seems so plain, so wan, so uncomfortable in the halls of big-time TV. Her chestnut brown hair is cut in a Dorothy Hamill wedge, her pink-and-brown dress has the air of Sunday best.

"I can't wait to get home," she said. "I want to be with my family. Two weeks I've been away from my family. That's too long."

Webb was 16 years old when this all began. She was scared of what her foster parents would say or do if she became pregnant after having sex "a few days or so" before July 9, 1977. She says now that every damning detail she told investigators about Dotson is "lies, all of it."

"The day after I was supposedly raped I rode my bicycle to a shopping center," she said. "Do you think I would have done that if I had been raped?"

The two years leading up to the trial were an "agony," but eventually Webb says she was able to escape the specter of Gary Dotson and all the ugliness of those last years in Illinois.

She is 23 now, married to David Webb, an ironworker. They have a son and a daughter, aged 2 and 1, and they live in the south-central New Hampshire town of Jaffrey.

"Jaffrey's a typical, rural New England town," Cathy Webb said. "People there are ironworkers or they have dairy farms. It's a blue-collar place. Real quiet. There's really nowhere to go out, no good restaurants or anything. We don't go out much. We bought a house a couple of years ago. It's not fancy or anything."

Webb says she kept the rape case a secret from her husband "a long time." More than three years ago she became a born-again Christian and "the guilt really got to me." Many images stayed in her mind, but one that gnawed at her for years, she says, "was at the end of the trial, I think, when they announced the verdict and I looked up at Dotson and I was crying and we both knew he was innocent . . . I tried to block so much of it out of my mind but how could I forget that?

"I was born again and, since then, I've been convicted of my sins but I wasn't courageous. I couldn't tell anyone right away. It was a gradual thing. I was scared of the consequences. If I have any courage, it's because the Lord gave it to me."

Webb's lawyer, John McLario, who accompanied her to New York and is also a born-again Christian, said, "God was picking at Cathy's conscience, for her to do what was right. She was living in a prison of guilt."

Four months ago, Webb says, she wrote a letter to Jerry Brandt, one of the original investigators of the case in Homewood, outside Chicago.

"I think my exact words in the letter were something like 'I'd like to know the status of the man I accused of raping me.' You see, I couldn't even write it as if he'd done it. I was hoping he'd be free by now. Of course, he wasn't."

Webb says Brandt called and said that, indeed, Dotson was still in jail. She says her next step was to tell her story early last month to Bonnie Nannini and her husband Carl Nannini, the pastor of Webb's church in New Hampshire, the Pilgrim Baptist Church.

Soon thereafter Webb told her husband all about Gary Dotson.

"Mr. Webb is a real hero on this thing," McLario said. "You couldn't meet a nicer person. He's totally supportive. Cathy and he, they're closer together than they ever were. And the church is completely behind her, too. They want to see justice done. They've even helped them with mortgage payments on their house."

Before becoming a church leader in New Hampshire, Carl Nannini was a chemist at General Motors in Milwaukee and knew John McLario, who has his office in Menomonee Falls, Wis. Nannini put Webb in touch with McLario immediately after hearing her story.

Reached at his church today, Nannini said, "[Webb] realized even before she was born again that she had done wrong."

At the end of March, Webb went public. On April 4, she testified before a special hearing and Dotson was set free on $10,000 bond. When Samuels rejected Webb's testimony on Thursday, Webb returned to jail. He has been moved from the maximum-security jail in Joliet to Dixon Correctional Center, where officials say he will have a private room and some variety of work detail.

Webb took a lie detector test at the polygraph offices in Chicago of Robert C. Cummins Monday. Webb was asked 10 questions about her new testimony and, according to the test, she was telling the truth when she denied knowing or being raped by Gary Dotson. Polygraph test results, however, are inadmissable under Illinois law.

"They say my testimony [in 1977] was detailed, but it's easy to give details on a lie," Webb said. "For those who have been raped it's harder to give details. I've never been raped."

For three weeks now, Webb has been a media sensation. Readers of the Chicago Sun-Times tabloid now know Webb simply by her headline name, "Cathy," as in "CATHY TAKES LIE TEST."

Webb is frequently on the front page, much like the case of subway violence and Bernhard Hugo Goetz. Chicago talk-radio shows are crackling with discussion of the case.

Interest in Webb and Dotson has become national. An editorial in today's editions of The New York Times said of Samuels that "Some of the judge's remarks from the bench made him appear more interested in defending the 1977 verdict than in determining whether he and the jury had been victimized by Mrs. Webb."

Publicity is a large measure of McLario and Webb's strategy to free Dotson from jail. As she gulps and blushes during television appearances, as she looks hard into the ground during an interview with a newspaper reporter, it's hard to imagine that Webb in any way relishes the attention.

And yet she goes through with almost all of it, interview after interview. There are reports she may be featured on the cover of People magazine's next issue.

"All the publicity has come from Cathy's desire to denounce statements that attack her credibility," McLario said. "People imply that she's unstable, that she's a cultist and living in a charged, emotional atmosphere just because she goes to a traditional Baptist church. But that's all false. She's here because she feels it's necessary to prove Gary Dotson's innocence.

"She'd rather be home, cleaning the house and taking care of her kids. She misses her children. The only satisfaction for her is the truth."

Occasionally, when she is off the air, Webb will show a sharp wit. She interrupted McLario to say of her religion and her decision to recant, "There's no lightning striking me. No visions or fires. No voices."

For the moment, Webb and McLario are waiting to see what they can do next in the Illinois courts. Webb will inevitably be spending more time far away from her husband, her children and her church. She is not even sure what going back to New Hampshire will feel like.

"I don't know what it will be like for me," she said. "I haven't dealt with going home yet."

Webb and McLario sat in the CBS waiting room fielding a barrage of phone calls and interview requests from all over the country. The travel, the interviews, the whole public process of freeing Gary Dotson from jail showed its toll on their faces. That is, until a sprightly CBS assistant walked in and said, "Phyllis would like to meet you, Cathy."

Webb brightened and straightened in her chair.

"Phyllis George? I'd love to."

For a moment at least she could be young and innocent of the past and those who either depend on her for freedom or still doubt her testimony. The former first lady of Kentucky and the newest light of morning television were waiting for her, Cathleen Crowell Webb, just down the hall.