Helen Delich Bentley was sitting in the women's center at Towson State University recently, waiting for her chance to tell a handful of college students why the Republican Party's policies are good for women.

When Lorraine Sheehan, Maryland's Democratic secretary of state, began first to tick off a list of reasons women should vote Democratic this year, Bentley grew impatient.

"That's a lot of crap," she muttered under her breath. "That's a lot of crap."

At 60, the daughter of a Nevada coal miner and former Nixon administration official is as hard-boiled as ever, making her third bid for Congress from Maryland's 2nd District. Once again, in a campaign unmatched in raw emotion anywhere in the state, she is taking on 75-year-old Democratic Rep. Clarence D. (Doc) Long, a 22-year-veteran of the House of Representatives and an institution in Maryland politics.

But unlike the campaigns in 1980 and 1982, when she narrowly lost to Long, Bentley has received solid backing this year from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has funneled money and some minor celebrities into a district GOP strategists say they can win. With redistricting and presidential coattails likely to be factors in the outcome, the $1.1 million spent collectively by Long and Bentley already has made their race one of the most expensive congressional contests in Maryland history.

"It's a tough race," says Mark Johnson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Bentley has run before and her margin improved the last time. It's a very important race for us."

With both candidates' philosophies well known to voters in the district, the campaign this year is a test of wills and personalities. Long, a former economics professor and political maverick, for the first time has assembled a professional campaign staff to ensure that he holds onto his prestigious chairmanship of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, where he has been a persistent thorn in President Reagan's side. He has also irritated other Democrats and has irreparably damaged relations with some members of his own Maryland delegation.

A staunch defender of Israel, Long has raised $740,000, much of it from out-of-state Jewish supporters. He is known for his spirited commitment to liberal principles and his intellect.

In response, Bentley, a maritime reporter and editor at The Baltimore Sun for 25 years, has wrapped herself in the Reagan mantle and accused Long of failing to protect steelworkers' jobs and port projects in Baltimore harbor. Although touted by national GOP strategists as a "top priority" race, none of the Republican Party's heavyweights has stumped on her behalf. But she has had former president Gerald Ford and a series of second-stringers campaign in the district, including Barbara Bush, the vice president's wife, and Maureen Reagan, the president's daughter.

In the past, the strength of Bentley's campaign has been Long's opposition to deepening Baltimore harbor, an unpopular position that he justified on grounds that disposing harbor sludge on nearby Hart and Miller islands posed an unfair threat to some of his constituents.

But this year Long has supported harbor dredging.

With the port issue receding, the 1984 contest has evolved into more of a classic liberal-conservative showdown over jobs, taxes, defense and social issues. Bentley has criticized Long for voting for federal funding of abortions, opposing the B1 bomber and supporting an expensive water project in Alabama while failing to protect jobs for steelworkers in Baltimore.

Beyond these predictable issues, a more controversial one also has surfaced this year.

"I grow better with age," Bentley told a luncheon forum at Baltimore Gas and Electric earlier this month. "To Clarence Long I say, 'I'll outrun you and outwork you every day of the week.' "

Her campaign, financed with $401,000 in contributions, has commercials no less blunt in their suggestions that the incumbent is too old to serve his 12th term.

"Is he confused or what?" asks a narrator at the conclusion of one commercial criticizing Long's voting record. "Sounds to me like Long has been in too long."

Long, who is sometimes absent-minded and easily loses his train of thought, has responded in kind. His latest commercials accuse Bentley of "taking the low road of arrogance" and distorting his record "either out of malice or ignorance."

Democratic supporters say Long learned his lesson in the last election, when Bentley came within a few percentage points of beating him. This year, they say, he is taking no chances. In addition to constituent services that are sure to pay off in votes on election day -- "If something goes wrong, call Congressman Long," is his motto -- his campaign message has been conveyed to voters more through an expensive media campaign than through personal appearances.

"He is spending double what I am," Bentley said during a recent campaign swing through Baltimore County. "If he is doing that, he must be really scared and concerned."

The scene is straight from "On the Waterfront." But instead of Marlon Brando, the "tough guy" here stands slightly over 5 feet tall, wears lipstick, and is named Helen Bentley. She is up on a dock-loading platform interviewing three Greek sailors "who had climbed the mast of their ship to protest political repression in Greece," a former colleague recalls.

For years, Bentley was a fixture in the Baltimore port community, known first for gutsy reporting on the docks and later as host of a television show about maritime affairs. In the Baltimore Sun newsroom she had two nicknames: "Delicious" (from her maiden name, Delich) and "Tugboat Annie."

"I am a woman who worked in men's fields for a long time," she said at the Towson State women's center forum, explaining why she supports the Equal Rights Amendment. "I insisted on working on the city side of the paper and not the women's pages. I was getting one-third the pay of the male reporters and doing three times the work. I did it all on my own. Women have to be willing to work and produce and not just expect favors because they are women."

In 1969, President Nixon appointed her chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, and she became the highest-ranking woman in the federal government. She held the job nearly six years and later became a consultant, specializing in maritime issues.

But her career in public service has not been untainted. In 1970, under pressure from the Democratic National Committee, she admitted asking 10 shipping executives, whose industry she regulated, to help raise funds for the gubernatorial campaign of C. Stanley Blair, a former aide of Spiro Agnew, then vice president and former Maryland governor.

Two years later, Bentley collected donations from shipping industry executives for the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). And in 1974, when she was considering running in the primary for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Charles McC. Mathias, lawyers who practiced before the maritime commission received letters from her asking for their support.

In the 2nd District, which is made up of parts of Harford and Baltimore counties, including the blue-collar strongholds of Essex and Dundalk, Bentley lore is extensive. She was once sent to Alaska, according to a former colleague, to cover the maiden voyage of an ice-breaker. She was the only woman reporter on the ship and was barred from using the ship's transmitter to send her stories. The reason: profanity is not allowed over cables regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Bentley has arrived at Johns Hopkins University's faculty club, where she is speaking to board members of United Christian Citizens Inc. They show her a sample ballot they will distribute on election day, with her name listed as the preferred congressional candidate in the 2nd District.

"I hope you will take these around and distribute them at all the churches," she said. "We're going to win; we are on a roll, but we can't let down for one second."

She tells the group she favors the death penalty for major drug traffickers, supports equal access for Bible groups wanting to use public schools for meetings, and is against abortion.

From early morning to late at night, Bentley has traversed her district almost daily. She is annoyed that Long has agreed to debate her only once during the campaign season.

"I'd like to take him head-on in a real debate, not one of these debates that are really just press conferences," she said. She is convinced that she will beat Long this time because, she said, she is "uncovering" his record.

"If we lived in the Middle Ages, she would be called Helen the Determined," said Republican state Sen. Howard A. Denis of Montgomery County, reflecting on her seemingly inexhaustible drive and ambition. "For Helen Bentley, this election is either the last hurrah or the dawn of a new day."