All day long, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. loped around Capitol Hill, collecting slaps on the back and manly hugs like the quarterback who scrambled for the winning touchdown in the big game.

The House Republican conference gave him a standing ovation. The staff in the House dining room was positively giddy while serving him an egg salad sandwich. Even grim-faced Capitol police officers lit up when they saw him.

"He's the most popular guy in the House," said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.). Every Republican in the place is "like a Bob Ehrlich groupie," he added.

And so it went as Ehrlich made his triumphant return yesterday to Capitol Hill after winning election as the first Republican governor of Maryland in 36 years. Even more impressive to his fellow Republicans, Ehrlich beat a Kennedy, halting the political ascendancy of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), who had been touted as a likely contender for the White House someday.

"Oh, what a win that was! It was just overwhelming! . . . She was a great person to beat!" House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) crowed to Ehrlich's wife, Kendel, as the first couple-elect prepared to sit down to lunch with Lt. Gov.-elect Michael S. Steele in the House dining room.

When's the inauguration? DeLay asked. "He says he wants me to come strut in Annapolis. He says he wants the whole conference to come!"

Kendel Ehrlich laughed her big laugh. "Annapolis is not far from here, so I expect to see you there!" she told DeLay. Then she scooped up the couple's 3-year-old son, Drew, and headed back to Ocean City, where the family has been trying to rest.

After a grueling campaign, a wild celebration on election night and hours of post-election planning, the Ehrlichs are camping out in a friend's condominium, writing hundreds of thank-you notes, placing hundreds of thank-you calls, hitting the gym and meeting with allies such as Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D).

"We need sleep," Kendel Ehrlich said, still sniffling from an Election Day cold.

As for the governor-elect, he seemed to be bursting with energy as he packed up eight year's worth of photographs, awards and memorabilia scattered around his office on the third floor of the Cannon House Office Building. Piles of books sat on opposite corners of his desk, one pile to keep ("The Death Penalty in America" and "The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work") and the other to throw away ("Islamic Fundamentalism;" and "First Son," a biography of President Bush).

He flew up from Ocean City by helicopter in the morning and headed straight into a meeting of House Republicans at 10, where Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) wrapped him in a bear hug after the applause died down. Hastert had pressured Ehrlich to keep his seat, which the GOP lost, in the end, to Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. But with Ehrlich now a GOP celebrity and Republicans in control of not only the House but also the Senate, all has been forgiven.

"The conference was incredible. Just great. They went nuts," Ehrlich said.

Swept into Congress during the Republican revolution of 1994, Ehrlich was part of a huge class of newcomers. Some stopped by his office yesterday to offer congratulations and take credit for helping to raise nearly $11 million, a record for a Maryland campaign.

"Some of us thought he was a little out of his mind for even trying" to run against Townsend, said Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.). "But he coerced us to come around and give him all the help he could get."

About 11:15 a.m., Steele showed up to consult with Ehrlich about doings at the transition office in Annapolis. The two are planning a news conference tomorrow to announce additions to their team.

"Hey! The lieutenant governor!" Ehrlich yelled, and the pair set off for the Capitol, where Ehrlich cast some of his final votes: on a continuing resolution for the budget and on a plan for an office of homeland security.

The whole way over and the whole way back, Ehrlich was repeatedly delayed by well-wishers.

"Nice job, governor," said an officer on the Capitol steps.

"He's a sweetheart," confided security officer Nicarsia Mayes at the door to the House chamber.

In the hallway, Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) dropped to his knees before Steele and kissed the floor. "We're old friends," an embarrassed Watts said after realizing that reporters were watching.

After lunch, Ehrlich got caught in another knot of Republicans on the Capitol steps. Rep. Richard Hastings (R-Wash.) was thanking Ehrlich for standing heroically "between the United States and Kathleen Kennedy" when Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who campaigned tirelessly for Townsend, happened by.

Months ago, in a wager placed on the House floor, Hoyer bet Ehrlich that Townsend would win. Yesterday, he slipped Ehrlich a twenty.

"Steny paid up! Steny paid up!" Ehrlich yelled happily, waving the bill over his head.

Then he held it up to his nose and sniffed, savoring the smell of victory.