ANNAPOLIS, AUG. 6 -- Rep. Helen Delich Bentley (R-Md.), annoyed at the husband and wife running mates who had been favored to win the GOP nomination for Maryland governor and lieutenant governor, has publicly thrown her support behind 11th-hour challenger Ross Z. Pierpont.

The endorsement for governor, announced Saturday at a Republican bull roast in Talbot County, belies the hope of party officials that intraparty opposition to the gubernatorial ticket of William and Lois Shepard would die quickly.

Pierpont, a frequent but never-yet-successful GOP contender for state and national office, said today that Bentley endorsed him as "the faithful old war horse of the Republican Party, who is there when you need him."

" 'We need Ross Pierpont and I want him beside me in the race for governor,' " Pierpont, a retired surgeon from Baltimore, quoted Bentley as saying.

Bentley, the three-term congresswoman who is the state's senior Republican elected official and a delegate to the Republican National Committee, could not be reached for comment.

But Richard Taylor, the state's other delegate to the national committee, confirmed she had endorsed Pierpont at the event.

Taylor said he gave a similarly strong endorsement for Shepard at the gathering and contended the competition is healthy for the party, which has registered increasing numbers of voters but still holds the minority of elected posts.

Taylor said Bentley's public support of Pierpont does not necessarily mean other Republicans will abandon Shepard, whose unorthodox decision to choose his wife as his running mate for lieutenant governor, some feel, marred what could have been a credible campaign. Shepard could not be reached for comment.