Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch had a single question for a delegate who recently compared his crusade against slot machine gambling to the ancient tale of Horatius, the man credited with preventing the Etruscan army from conquering and pillaging Rome.

"What," Busch asked, "ever happened to Horatius?"

Legend has it that Horatius single-handedly staved off attackers by defending a strategic bridge until it could be destroyed, then jumped into the Tiber River. But versions differ as to whether he reached safety and was duly rewarded by a grateful city or drowned before reaching the bank.

In the modern world of state politics, Busch (D-Anne Arundel) is the chief obstacle to a proposal that would dramatically expand legalized gambling in Maryland. The affable new speaker has pitted his House of Delegates against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who has made legalizing slot machines a centerpiece of his first year in office, and against Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat and pro-slots veteran with a proven ability to manipulate the levers of power.

In the coming days, Busch's political acumen will be put to the test. He will bring to the House floor a proposal to study the gambling issue for a year. He will settle on a package of tax increases and budget cuts to fill a gap estimated at more than $400 million. He will have to move those proposals through two key finance committees, where leaders would rather use slot machine revenue to backfill at least a portion of the shortfall. And then he will have to persuade a majority in the House to vote for the budget plan the following week.

None of the options Busch is considering is going to be popular.

A plan to close corporate tax loopholes could raise about $200 million but would still require deep cuts to balance the budget. Two other options, raising the sales tax by a penny or temporarily increasing the income tax for top earners, would raise more money. But Ehrlich has promised to veto both, meaning delegates might be forced to take a politically difficult vote for naught.

Midway through his first term as speaker, Busch is resolute. As the budget battle begins in earnest, the time for talking has come to an end, he said. Gather the whips. Start counting votes. The House is going to put some points on the board.

"At times I have thought, 'God, Busch, what are you doing here? You're the only guy standing in this whole storm,' " he said. "Still, I really think that people have welcomed this debate."

But critics question how long Busch can stand his ground on a path littered with lobbyists and campaign contributions from gambling interests. To pass a budget, the Senate and the House will have to come to an agreement the governor can live with or risk gridlock that could send the session into overtime. Miller is far less inclined to increase taxes, and he and Ehrlich have a lot riding on the passage of slots. And Busch's ability to keep the 98 House Democrats in line is largely untested.

"Everyone is going to have to blink, or you aren't going to solve the problem," said Laurence Levitan, a pro-slots lobbyist. "And if the Senate wants slots and the governor wants slots, Busch is going to have to give on that issue. You can't have one body taking a position and holding up everything."

Busch, first elected in 1987, has been underestimated before.

A lumbering former high school football coach who often dresses in mismatched pants and sports coats, Busch is not a man who exudes power. His wide-eyed quality inspires maternal concern from his loyal aides, who proudly share the letters of support that have poured into his office. But behind his somewhat rumpled facade lurk an athlete's competitiveness and a stubborn streak that make him refuse to concede.

It was Busch who last year led the fight in the General Assembly against CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the region's largest health insurance company.

The nonprofit company wanted to sell itself to a publicly traded California insurer, and, as one delegate recalled it, "The deal was like a freight train coming down the tracks, and he just stood there in front of it."

This month, Busch was vindicated: Maryland's insurance commissioner killed the deal and strongly rebuked the company's board and management. In Busch's years as chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, he never lost a vote on the House floor.

Part of the reason for Busch's success, those who know him say, is that he is a consensus builder skilled at pumping up his members, actually saying such things as, "Fight, team, fight!" But he is also a diligent student, immersing himself in the details of health care policy or, as he has done this year, meeting weekends with legislative analysts to ensure that his grasp of the budget is as detailed as that of any of his chairmen. And his legislative positions often arise from deeply held convictions or personal experience. His view on slots, for instance, is informed by his father's alcohol and gambling problems, which devastated the family.

In the battle over slots, Busch has had his ups and downs. Early in the session, he came out in support of increasing certain taxes, only to backtrack so that he could look for the proper mix that a majority could support. He has also been forced to watch his own leadership team: Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore) is an ardent slots supporter. And Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery), chairman of the committee considering slots legislation, has longtime ties to one of the racetrack owners.

Late last month, Busch was stunned when Ehrlich launched an offensive with a personal attack. The two men have shared a friendship since the 1980s when both served in the House of Delegates. But in a private meeting with members of the horse-racing industry and again at a public committee hearing, the governor accused Busch of "playing the race card" by enlisting the help of black ministers opposed to slots. Then came the news that Ehrlich had turned to Busch's mentor, former speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., to help break down resistance to slots in the House.

It was, Busch says, a "surreal" week, one he'd like to erase from the calendar.

Busch's campaign to defeat slots has been helped by the governor's own missteps. Ehrlich's first slots plan was disparaged by racetrack owners and local governments as unfair and impractical. It took weeks for the governor to put a new proposal on the table, and that, too, has been criticized by lawmakers who said they felt misled about how much money track owners stood to gain. Also, Ehrlich's new plan cut next year's projected revenue from slots by $230 million, making tax increases or program cuts inevitable.

"Nobody's gotten any answers," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), Busch's closest ally in the Senate. "Ten days ago, I would have said that Busch was going to have to blink because there wasn't much public momentum against slots. Now there's a lot of confusion in the public, and the governor and the Senate president are no longer in the driver's seat."

Recently, former speaker Clay Mitchell, a disciplinarian known for the arm twisting he did to get a budget deal during the recession of 1992, called Busch with a bit of advice. "When you get ready to move, move firmly and decisively," Mitchell said. Busch, who remembers how Mitchell yanked the coveted chairmanships of those who opposed him, knew precisely what he meant.

When Busch assumed the speaker's post in January, he showed himself willing to shake things up, dumping a longtime committee chairman and abolishing his committee. But his is a more conciliatory approach than Mitchell's.

He continues to embrace Taylor, and last week, he met with Ehrlich over breakfast in the governor's mansion, where both men said they attempted to put aside their differences.

It took "two seconds" to patch things up, Ehrlich said. Though Busch said Ehrlich never mentioned his previous comment, the governor had a different recollection. "Mike said, 'I've been called a lot worse when I was refereeing basketball games.' "

On Friday, Busch was in his office late into the evening, meeting with gambling opponents to talk strategy. His wife called: The kids have strep throat. He sympathized, then explained he had to go to a slots forum in Laurel. He turned back to the issue at hand. An aide poked his head out the door.

Busch wanted to know the outcome of a key committee vote on the proposal to study slots for a year. Unanimous, he was told, 22 to 0. Even the Republicans on the committee voted yes.

"Big vote in committee," he said, leaning back in his La-Z-Boy, a hint of a smile creasing the corners of his mouth. His majority leader, Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), was more openly jubilant. "Woo!" he yelped, pumping his fist in a gesture of victory.

But even as the two men contemplated the vote, slots supporters were spinning it as a procedural victory that will allow them to move the gambling debate into the more friendly Senate. In the coming weeks, Busch acknowledged, "there are many twists and turns ahead."

Even in the face of a huge budget deficit, House Speaker Michael E. Busch plans to introduce a proposal to study the slots issue for a year.House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has backed off his earlier plan to increase certain taxes to fill the state's looming budget deficit.