Robert H. Kittleman, 78, a retired engineer and cattle rancher who became the dignified elder statesman for a generation of Republicans in the Maryland General Assembly, died of leukemia Saturday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Kittleman enjoyed a long, unflashy and sometimes surprising career in Maryland politics. Most of it was spent battling from the back benches in a legislature that has for decades been controlled by Democrats. But his influence was elevated during his final years in Annapolis, after he helped recruit then-representative Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to run for governor in 2002.

Ehrlich's election, as well as a seat on the Senate's powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, gave Kittleman an ability to put his stamp on state policy.

On some levels, Kittleman served a traditional Republican apprenticeship, working on campaigns for former U.S. senator Charles McC. Mathias Jr. and former U.S. representative Gilbert Gude, among others.

He also was a rarity, braving support for racial integration in his rural Howard County community in the 1960s. He became the first white member and then president of the county branch of the NAACP and later made outreach to blacks a vital part of his vision for state Republicans.

Kittleman became a triumphant figure to many in his party when, in 1982, he became the first Howard County Republican in more than 60 years to win a seat in the House of Delegates; his district stretched to Montgomery Village. He sat on the House Economic Matters Committee, was minority whip from 1987 to 1994 and then minority leader until 2001.

The sheer dominance of the Democratic Party made it hard for Kittleman to make a major mark on legislation in the House or the Senate, where he had served since 2002. His even-tempered, midwestern demeanor was credited with allowing his party more influence than it might have had otherwise, said former House speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany).

Kittleman succeeded the outspokenly conservative Ellen R. Sauerbrey as minority leader and tried to forge a Republican caucus united on economic issues, which he felt was Republican common ground. He frowned on what he considered the divisive battles over abortion and gun control, figuring they would deteriorate relations in his small political band.

Some Republicans hoped he would continue Sauerbrey's blunt-spoken strategy, which had been credited with helping increase their numbers in the General Assembly. But Kittleman, who became minority leader by one vote, proceeded gingerly.

"We have enough people to be considered, but not to do much," he told the Baltimore Sun in 1995. "Having 41 people . . . still doesn't equate to control. This is still the seventh most lopsided legislature in the nation."

In the Senate, where he represented parts of Howard and Carroll counties, he served on the influential Budget and Taxation Committee.

Robert Harvey Kittleman, the son of a Republican district judge, was born Jan. 31, 1926, in Omaha and raised in northwestern Iowa. He served in the Navy in Guam during World War II and was a mechanical engineering graduate of the University of Oklahoma.

He spent his career at Westinghouse Electric Corp., early on working in Pennsylvania as a project manager on Navy weaponry. He settled in Howard County in the mid-1950s and retired in 1984 as an engineering manager.

He cultivated a hobby as a farmer, eventually buying a 116-acre property in West Friendship to raise Maine Anjou cattle.

He also became involved in Republican politics and with the NAACP. As the civil rights organization's education committee chairman, he went to public meetings to advocate the racial integration of public schools, the police force and restaurants.

At night, he sometimes asked his children to move their beds away from windows as a precaution against those upset with his NAACP activities.

After making an unsuccessful bid in 1978 for a seat on the Howard County Council, he vowed to march door to door in his next effort at public office. Running for the House of Delegates in 1982, he canvassed neighborhoods and met thousands of people.

He promoted himself as a supporter of President Ronald Reagan's economic policies. He said he wished to make Maryland more attractive to industry, reduce state income taxes and foster "fair enforcement of labor laws."

He never fulfilled one of his key crusades -- to end "prevailing wage" laws that he said added unnecessarily to the costs of building schools.

"The prevailing wage law, a Depression-era relic designed primarily to prevent black workers from undercutting white union members in wage competition, serves no purpose but to inflate the pay of people lucky enough to work on state-funded construction jobs," he wrote in a letter to the editor published by The Washington Post in 1992.

He added: "Wages paid for state construction (roads, prisons etc.) are set by bureaucrats at the Prevailing Wage Commission instead of by employers in the free market, and those wages can exceed those paid for comparable private construction by as much as 100 percent. The average wage set by the commission, though, is 30 percent higher than the prevailing wage in the free market."

In 2002, he replaced state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe (R), who had been appointed to a federal job and now serves as Maryland's human resources secretary.

Around Annapolis, he was known for paying his own way when he ate with lobbyists -- long before that became law. He was appointed to a conference committee that drafted stricter laws on ethical behavior.

He routinely balked at speaking engagements, spurring a joke that he was a rare politician indeed: one who did not like to talk.

His marriages to Sue Kittleman and Patricia Kittleman ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Trent M. Kittleman, deputy state secretary of transportation, of West Friendship; three children from his first marriage, Laura Yeatts of Poolesville and Cody Kittleman and Howard County Council member Allan H. Kittleman (R-West County), both of West Friendship; two stepdaughters, Heather Mitchell of Owings Mills, Md., and Samantha Mitchell of Baltimore; a brother; and 10 grandchildren.

Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

ROBERT H. KITTLEMANRobert Kittleman's even-tempered demeanor was credited with giving the outnumbered Republicans more influence than they otherwise might have had in Annapolis.