Washington spin rule No. 1: First, do no harm.

Washington spin rule No. 2: The client is the story, not the spinner.

Washington spin rule No. 3: Keep talking.

Marina Ein, Washington publicist extraordinaire, has been having a little difficulty following the rules lately.

Ein waded into the churning waters of the Chandra Levy story two weeks ago, joining Rep. Gary Condit's (D-Calif.) camp to try and make lemonade out of a multiplying pile of lemons. It may be the ultimate "crisis communications" job, a sometime Ein specialty. The media pack had been circling, grabbing hunks of raw flesh from Condit's credibility. Adulterer. Prevaricator. And maybe a man hiding something about the disappearance of a young, female intern.

Condit lawyer Abbe Lowell hired Ein to tell them it isn't like that.

Only she seems to be choking on the message.

A few days into the gig, Ein declared it a "home run" for Condit when police said he was not a suspect in the case -- a characterization that outraged Levy's distraught relatives. Then, earlier this week, she allegedly suggested to reporters that a magazine was preparing an article on Levy's sexual history. The problem was, no such story was in the works, nor was there any evidence that Levy had a sordid past. Ein vehemently denied the smear, although at least two reporters say they heard her say it.

It was, to say the least, an odd start for a woman who spent the past two decades building a PR practice that has ably served the likes of Michael Milken, John McLaughlin, Pat Buchanan, the Democratic National Committee and the Rosenthal car dealership group.

Reporters who know the gossipy, well-connected Ein -- favored reporters often party poolside with her at her lavish home off Foxhall Road NW -- seem dumbfounded by her lack of a coherent and appropriate counteroffensive. Most quizzical, they say, has been the PR team's inability -- or unwillingness -- to battle the steady drip of unflattering stories and damning "visuals."

Here are the live TV stand-ups in Rock Creek Park as police cadets scour the underbrush for a body. Here are the evidence technicians wheeling boxes of material from Condit's Adams Morgan apartment. Here is the henna-haired flight attendant detailing a long affair with Condit and his alleged attempts to have her lie about it.

Levy's aunt speaks. The Modesto minister speaks. Levy's parents speak daily.

But still Condit does not.

The other day, Condit was caught on camera grinning and laughing at something -- footage certain to be juxtaposed with the grim business of Levy's search. "Have you heard anything good about Gary Condit?" asks one print reporter who's on the case. "There is no info coming out of [Ein]. He continues to plunge and they haven't done anything to stop it."

Ein has repeatedly insisted that Condit has been "fully cooperative" with investigators. D.C. police, who've been trying to arrange a polygraph test of Condit, have disputed this.

Whatever her efforts on Condit's behalf, it's clear that Ein doesn't want to tell her own story right now. After repeated calls to her home and office this week, she finally calls back to decline an interview, saying she is overwhelmed by recent events and needs time to regroup.

That seems to violate another basic rule of Washington spin: Don't let others define you.

Those who know the 48-year-old Ein describe her in terms you'd want to hear if your reputation were hanging by a thread: "A pit bull, a real advocate for her clients," says one Wall Street Journal reporter, who describes Ein as "a semi-personal" friend. Michael Isikoff, a Newsweek reporter who's following the Levy case, calls Ein "professional and straight." He adds, "She's handled this thing as well as she could under some pretty trying circumstances."

Jill Abramson, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, recalls running afoul of Ein when she was reporting on the Democratic National Committee's finances a few years ago. "She did not hesitate to get in my face and tell me she was unhappy with our portrayal of her clients," says Abramson. "She would argue with me. I listened politely and tried to address her grievances, but in the end there was nothing to change."

Ein has been an effective advocate for some decidedly unsexy causes and clients. Jim Glassman, the former publisher of the New Republic magazine, recalls hiring Ein not long after she started her own firm in 1980. "The New Republic was this dull, intellectual magazine that no one paid attention to," says Glassman. "She put it on the map and made people take notice . . . She was promoting our stories, stuff about nuclear defense. I have to tell you that's not easy to sell. But she did it. She got our name all over the damned place."

Ein also helped the Rosenthal dealership in 1993, when 11 of its salesmen and managers were indicted on charges that they helped drug dealers launder profits by accepting cash for expensive cars. She repeatedly argued to the media that the government went to incredible lengths to entrap the employees. The dealership eventually agreed to pay the government $2.6 million while admitting no wrongdoing.

Ein now presides over a 12-employee shop that last year had revenues of $2 million, according to Dun & Bradstreet records. In addition to handling political accounts, Ein Communications has an eclectic client list, with the likes of Legal Seafoods restaurants, the New Republic and firms in the high-tech, legal and retail industries. "We value candor and frankness to agree upon realistic goals and mutual expectations," reads a statement from the company's Web site.

In addition to business connections, Ein is plugged into Washington through family as well. A daughter from her first marriage (to PR man Terry Newmyer) became best friends with Chelsea Clinton when the two girls were attending Sidwell Friends School in the mid-1990s. Her husband, Daniel Ein, is an allergist in private practice in Northwest Washington with a long list of prominent patients. Stepson Mark Ein is a multimillionaire financier of local technology and telecommunications firms.

The swirl of personal and professional connections enables Marina Ein to practice what Abramson calls "social arbitrage" -- in which friendships and professional relationships are sometimes blurred.

To be sure, Ein hasn't been allowed to let Condit talk to the media. That decision was made by Lowell. "The congressman has every intention of talking to his constituents at the appropriate time," Lowell says. "Now is not the appropriate time, not when the media has created this wild, frenzied atmosphere where reporters go through the congressman's prescription records and his children's school records. . . . Maybe [not talking] makes the media crazy, but it's the right thing to do."

Lowell says Ein is "working under impossible circumstances. I don't think you know what it's like to get 70 or 80 media calls a day, to have people threatening you and trying to make you the story. She's done extraordinarily well considering everything."

But there's a middle ground between full exposure and media hide-and-seek, says Lanny Davis, who spun for President Clinton during the heyday of the Lincoln Bedroom and campaign-finance controversies. He says the PR playbook calls for a simple strategy: Let them see your client bleed.

"You've got to get your guy in a room with all the media surrounding you and throwing every nasty, rotten question they can think of at you," says Davis, whose new book, "Truth to Tell," is subtitled "Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself."

"There's no easy way around it," he says. "The public wants to see you going through the pain of answering the questions. If you do that, you change the story. You go from being the guy who's hiding to the guy who's hounded."

The damage can be undone, he says, only if Ein "gets up in front of microphones and says, 'Gary Condit was embarrassed to admit publicly that he had an affair with an intern. He is especially embarrassed that he did not learn the lessons of the recent past. He's sorry he didn't react better and sooner. But he was frightened and was hoping that [Levy] would show up and this nightmare would go away. Now he wants to apologize and will answer any question except those that invade his personal life.' "

Or as Ein herself told this newspaper when asked earlier this year about how she might represent Marc Rich, the controversial financier pardoned by Bill Clinton: "A competent professional should try to sanitize him as much as possible and position him as someone . . . anxious to set the record straight and willing to tell his story under the right circumstances."