Call it the conjugal slate. He drives, she tells him which way to turn. She jokes, he laughs. He slumps, she tells him to stand up straight. Together, they plead for votes. They are running -- and they are mates.

For many in Maryland Republican circles, the spectacle is embarrassing. When GOP gubernatorial candidate William Shepard, 55, chose his wife, Lois, 52, as his running mate, the reaction started with howls of indignation at the top of their own party and ended with a condescending chuckle from their chief opponent, Democratic incumbent Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

There were jokes -- bedfellows make strange politics -- tactical criticism and practical repercussions. Choosing a running mate from the same household, to put it mildly, ignored the need for a balanced ticket. Neither Shepard has experience in elective office or state government. At the last minute, the Shepards found themselves with opposition they hadn't bargained for in the Sept. 11 Republican primary. And a candidacy that Republicans had hoped would annoy if not defeat Schaefer began to seem like an ego trip for two.

But even if the worst predictions come true, the Shepards, reared in New England and now residing in Potomac, insist this is a good idea, calling it an epochal event for women and an example for the '90s. Hunting for votes in inner-city Baltimore, they say Bill's career in the U.S. Foreign Service, practicing diplomacy from Saigon to Bordeaux, makes him a practiced leader, while Lois's years as a teacher, Republican activist and federal administrator show she can manage budgets and people.

They are both figures of substance, they say, to be judged on their ability and not on the fact that they share a bedroom.

"I'm not just going to sit around giving dinner parties, as important as those are," Lois Shepard said following the formal announcement of her campaign for lieutenant governor last month. "The fact is that we are going into the decade of the '90s, when partnerships are the norm... . This is the future. The politics of the past is what we have now -- a few old boys in the back room, pulling strings... . The options are open, not closed."

Will anybody buy it?

They came of age in the '50s, with '50s names and '50s style. They converse politely, behave politely and, so far at least, campaign politely. They were Democrats when John F. Kennedy was elected president, became Republicans when they tired of Jimmy Carter, and like their movies in black-and-white. Their house and campaign office are filled with knickknacks from a life abroad and on the periphery of power -- a rare silver shoe buckle from the court of Louis XV, a Senate roll call ratifying the INF Treaty, which Bill Shepard helped to lobby for.

Lois Shepard, less than five minutes after saying hello, chats about the changes a "real family" would make to the governor's mansion: relocate the fountain recently installed by the bachelor Schaefer and First Friend Hilda Mae Snoops from behind the mansion's spiked iron fence to a more accessible spot. Plant some new trees. Bring in a playpen for the grandchild.

But this, of course, is trivia, a personal issue with no place in a campaign. What she really wants is to get her hands on the state budget, all $11.6 billion of it, and sort out the state's human priorities she says Schaefer and his lieutenant governor, Melvin A. Steinberg, have ignored in favor of stadiums and new rail lines.

Husband Bill has budgets and taxation high on his list too. He says that campaigning around the state he finds that people are very upset about their tax bills and tired of Schaefer's mercurial personality. If elected, he says, he will replace Schaefer's periodic explosions with a Victorian sense of decorum and a diplomat's cultivated cheer. When your forebears touched down at Plymouth Rock it is easy to be confident -- even to the point of playing down the bloodlines.

"Neither the Puritans nor the Pilgrims were regarded in the least as blue bloods, and that is why they left," Bill Shepard says of his ancestors, who included a founder of Harvard University, where he attended law school. Lois, whose family emigrated from Eastern Europe, went to Vassar. They met in Vienna, where they were doing summer studies, and raised three children during embassy postings in Singapore, wartime Vietnam, Hungary, Greece and France.

Bill Shepard retired from the Foreign Service in 1985, and went back to the government temporarily in 1987 as a congressional liaison for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. As a couple the Shepards are competent in four languages, and on their last break from campaigning went to New York and squeezed five operas into three days.

A starker contrast to Schaefer -- born, bred and permanently planted in Baltimore -- could not be imagined. The question arises: Why, after a career of globe-trotting and transatlantic party invitations, would the Shepards want to spend their time worrying about road projects or unemployment on the Eastern Shore?

The formal, Ivy League answer comes from Pascal: "An individual must take part in the great events of your time for fear of having it said afterwards that you never lived at all," says Bill Shepard, paraphrasing the French philosopher as he drives back from a recent appearance in Baltimore. "That really got to me."

The more personal motivation, they say, is entwined with the 1980 death of their son, who was stricken at 14 with hepatitis while the family was stationed in Greece.

"I don't want to overdramatize this, but when you lose a child you have got to take stock as to why you are alive," says Lois Shepard. "What are you supposed to do? What difference are you supposed to make?"

In Maryland they see themselves as sort of suburban revolutionaries, challenging what, in their view, amounts to a one-party state dominated by a single, strong-handed man: William Donald Schaefer. The Shepards attack what they say is Schaefer's overemphasis on bricks-and-mortar projects, especially the new baseball stadium and light-rail line in Baltimore. They also claim he will propose major tax increases in this second term but is refusing to discuss them during the campaign; the Shepards don't believe a tax increase is necessary.

"This is potentially a significant election," Bill Shepard says.

Going for Substance

After an afternoon of campaigning, there is the unsettled question: Are they Ozzie and Harriet, or Juan and Evita Peron? Quixotically gentle do-gooders on one more quest, or a politically astute couple who see Maryland as an open field for Republicans with brains and motivation? The answer is a little of both.

The Montgomery County GOP has produced a series of transplanted intellectuals who aspire to office after ending careers in federal Washington, and realize they live, of all places, in Maryland. A chief difficulty in their getting elected, however, is that their ties to the state are slim, and their ties to the people even slimmer.

Witness former U.S. Civil Rights Commission official Linda Chavez, trounced in her U.S. Senate bid four years ago. Witness former State Department official Alan Keyes, crushed in his U.S. Senate effort two years ago. Witness Shepard himself, defeated in an earlier campaign for Congress by a veteran local legislator.

The difference is that following his 1986 primary loss to U.S. Rep. Connie Morella, Shepard stuck with it. Instead of disappearing to a think tank or migrating back to Bordeaux, he helped recruit precinct captains for the county GOP, and presided over the local Republican Club. When the state party began looking for someone to run for governor in 1990, Shepard was recruited. Convinced there was enough disaffection with Schaefer to make the race competitive, he agreed.

It is not as if Shepard had a lot of options once his hat was in the ring. After deciding to run for governor, he was forced by the state constitution to choose a running mate for lieutenant governor, an office of ill-defined duties that is only 20 years old. Lieutenant governors in Maryland have only as much clout as governors let them have, which normally isn't much. Shepard said he wanted to change that, creating what he calls, in his name-dropping style, "an elected John Sununu" to ride herd over state spending.

The interviews spanned months and included some of the dimmer lights in the state Republican Party. In the end he found two people he thought were fit for the job. Neither accepted, a coincidence Shepard says was not a reflection on the party's faith in his campaign.

Confronted with a deadline for naming his choice, he turned to the woman who he says was first on his list all along -- Lois Burke Shepard, his wife of 30 years. Having gone through the motions of a search, he found what he needed at home. The option, he says, would have been to lower his standards and pick some party functionary, which he was not willing to do.

"I chose to go for substance," Shepard says.

Judgment was swift. At first, even party regulars like GOP Chairman Joyce L. Terhes said they were disappointed that Shepard did not make a more traditional choice -- if not for his own sake, then for other Republican candidates who were hoping a good gubernatorial ticket might spark interest in the party at all levels.

While still a minority in Maryland, the GOP has registered solid registration gains in the last 10 years, and hopes in this round of state elections to build a stronger farm team of local officials. By possibly thwarting that aim, party insiders conjectured, Shepard ruined his own chances to become a future Republican congressional nominee (his ultimate objective in running for governor, some say).

"I have a problem with it," says U.S. Rep. Helen D. Bentley, the state's senior Republican office holder. "I have been saying he is a good, respectable candidate ... but this ticket is not going to go over well. The calls we are getting are not good. I don't think it will help the party."

The question the critics never fully answer is why Shepard's choice of his wife seemed such a terrible gaffe. Imagine that Shepard had picked any other woman. In a state that has proved itself among the most receptive in the country to women candidates -- nearly half the state's congressional delegation and a healthy chunk of the state legislature is female -- he likely would have drawn rave reviews.

Once the initial criticism died down, that is the point people like Terhes and the Shepards themselves started emphasizing. Why should a marriage license stand in the way of someone who has demonstrated a knack for politics and built a career of her own?

As the head of Republicans Abroad, Lois Shepard helped the Republican National Committee mine 1 million overseas votes for Ronald Reagan in 1984. She was appointed to head a small federal agency, the Institute of Museum Services, in 1986 and represented George Bush on arts issues in speaking appearances during the 1988 presidential campaign. She has dabbled in real estate and taught in the D.C. public schools during the riot-torn '60s.

"Were Lois any other woman, people would look at the credentials and say, 'Great!' " Terhes said.

The tradition of husband-and-wife political teams has not always worked to the greater advancement of women. One of the nation's first women governors, Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, was elected in Texas in 1924 to vindicate the name of her impeached husband, James E. "Farmer Jim" Ferguson. Their campaign slogan: "Two governors for the price of one."

George Wallace helped elect his wife, Lurleen, as Alabama governor in 1966 because he was not allowed to succeed himself. In 1974, prominent Florida citrus grower Ben Hill Griffin, a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, named his wife as his running mate to prove, according to a news account of the announcement, that the state did not need a lieutenant governor.

Win or lose, the Shepards say their effort will at least break that pattern. Perhaps for the first time, the mate is running for positive reasons. In any case, the man at the top of the ticket brings the argument down to earth with this modest reminder: "It's not as though we're running against Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams."