In earlier autumns, when Bob Bauman crossed the bay and traveled along the country roads and main streets of his homeland for the election ritual, all of the folks on the Eastern Shore precisely what he stood for and who he was. He presented things so starkly -- issues were black and white, beliefs were dead-right or dead-wrong, politicians were either good or bad, and Bob Bauman was Bob Bauman, the incontrovertible orator of the political right and the morally righteous.

Today, that has changed. There appear to be several Bob Baumans out there campaigning for reelection in Maryland's First Congressional District.

There is the contrite Bauman, who admits to the "twin compulsions" of alcoholism and "homosexual tendencies." There is the sanctimonious Bauman, who says he has sinned but adds that "probably all the members of Congress are sinners." There is the tenacious Bauman, who lashes out at an interviewer, saying he should be judged by his record, not his personal life. There is the resolute Bauman, who asserts to his constituents that facing his personal crises has made him a changed and better man. And there is the oblivious Bauman, loping through the town halls and fraternal lodges as though this were just any old congressional campaign, not a fight for his political survival.

In turn, the public reaction to the campaign of this nationally known conservative has been as diverse as the messages he is giving out. Now, three weeks after Bauman agreed to undergo court-ordered rehabilitation rather than face trial on a charge of soliciting sex with a teen-aged boy, the voters are calling him everything from a "courageous human being" to a "swine."

Whatever his pose and however his consituents perceive him, it seems clear that Bauman may never be able to return to what he once was, nor to achieve what he once had sought.

Before his fateful encounter with the legal system last month, Bauman was the verbal sharpshooter of the Republican right, his oratorical aims always directed at House colleagues who had somehow earned his scorn, his sarcasm and ridicule ricocheting around the well of the chamber like so many amendments to an appropriations bill. Today, the word is out in Congress that if Bauman returns, he had better display more humility or his tactics will be turned against him. Warned one Republican compatriot: "A lot of people are ready to step all over him, including conservatives he has ridiculed or embarrassed."

And before his encounter with the law, Bauman had placed himself on the escalator to congressional leadership that he hoped would take him up to a position as minority whip next session and then, someday, after his party had gained control of the House, to the speaker's podium, where his parliamentary wizardry, even his opponents concede, would put Sam Rayburn and Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neil to shame. Now, such ambitions may never be realized. Said one colleague: "He broke his own back."

Bauman knows as much, and on the campaign trail these days he tailors his thoughts accordingly. The politician who in years past seemed to live in the House chamber, feeding on his own rhetorical skills and ambitions, offered a humble vision of his future at a recent Kiwanis Club dinner in Elkton. Said Bauman: "I do not spire to any so-called positions of power. My first priority now is personal. I'm going to be home for my birthday and my daughter's birthday. I may even miss a roll call sometime when a family matter comes up. What is important to me is going on and doing what has to be done. I'm going to represent this district better than it's ever been represented before."

What the 43-year-old Bauman is most worried about right now, however, is salvaging his seat in the House against Democratic challenger Roy Dyson, and with it his place in the political arena that he entered as a House page in the 1950s and dreamed of as a little boy after reading a book about Abraham Lincoln. To that end he is traversing his massive district, which runs from the northern tip of the state south along the Chesapeake Bay to Virginia, flying from luncheon speech to courthouse tour to shopping center walk-around, his wife Carol constantly by his side.

His whirlwind campaigning now is in marked contrast to the first week after his appearance Oct. 3 in D.C. Superior Court. Bauman was a recluse for those five days, huddled in his prim, circa 1840 farmhouse set far back from a country road in Easton. Then came an emotional press conference in which he declared that he would not back down from his reelection race, and the first few tentative steps back to the campaign trail. So protective were his aides during those weeks that reporters could not find out where Bauman was appearing, and on at least one occasion they were barred from the event.

But by last Friday the Bauman campaign was back to business as usual. On a tour of Elkton, the courthouse town nestled in the farmland of Cecil County, it was hard to tell that Bauman was running for his political life. With all the bravura of a self-assured incumbent, he bounded through the courthouse, passing out red-and-blue Vote for Bob Bauman pens. He moved on to Main Street and the Big Elk Mall, signing an autograph here, shaking a hand there and packing a car with groceries for a somewhat flustered and flattered constituent. The string of "good lucks" and "We're with yous" was broken only once by a couple who refused to take his literature or his proffered pen.

"We had a great day in Cecil County, a friendly reception." Bauman later said. "Sure I feel good. Why should'nt I?"

That same night, at the local Kiwanis Club dinner, things went less easily. He was forced once more to confront the realities of this campaign. In a speech in which he reeled off his accomplishments in Congress and took a few shots at his opponent Dyson, Bauman told his audience: "I can tell you tonight that if I win or if I lose, you have a lot different congressman than you had before. And thank God that you do."

One of those changes, Bauman said later, is that he has "more understanding of human nature" -- a quality that many of his colleagues and constituents previously had found lacking in the conservative oracle, who was always quick to jump on the failings of others. There was, for instance, the time when Bauman, asked about his political ambitions, replied: "Like Kennedy says, 'I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.'" And there was the time during a House debate when he noted that Wayne Hays, who had accused him of knowing little about foreign affairs, "had problems with affairs himself."

On the main streets of the tiny towns that make up Bauman's conservative and religious district, those harsh judgments may be coming back to haunt him. In Pocomoke City, where Bauman campaigned last week, one gray-haired woman shook her head sadly and said, "You know he's never shown much compassion for others, and now he wants it for himself."

One longtime acquaintance believes that Bauman's tough outer shell is a defense mechanism that Bauman constructed as a child in Pennsylvania, where he bounced around in a series of foster homes until he was adopted at age 12 by John Carl Bauman, an insurance salesman, and his wife, Florence. Shortly after that, the cherubic child's new family moved to Easton, Md., where the now-scholarly teen-ager attended school only a short while before convincing then-U.S. Sen. John Marshall Butler (R-Md.) to appoint him a page at the U.S. Capitol.

In those days of last winter, when his then-unclouded future appeared to offer the choice of House minoirty whip or U.S. senator, Bauman called a press conference to announce he would not challenge his party's popular but liberal senator, Charles McC. Mathias. But he couldn't resist, as usual, the cheap shot, observing that "the last good senator Maryland produced was John Marshall Butler."

If Bauman's humor is acerbic, it may be because he learned from the right wing's master of intellectual invective, columnist William F. Buckley. And now that Buckley has called for Bauman's resignation, while still pledging his personal friendship, Bauman is giving it back in the finest tradition.

On the stump Thursday, Bauman said, "Bill Buckley can tell me to resign . . . but Mr. Buckey is not going to get his wish."

Bauman's rigid political philosophy was shaped during the 15 years he worked on the Hill, first as a page and then in various "gofer" capacities for the Republican leadership. He graduated from the Page School in 1955, and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in international affairs at Georgetown University, and then a law degree there, all the while gaining first-hand knowledge of how Congress works.

While in law school, he founded Young Americans for Freedom, which became a leading force among conservative ideologues on college campuses in the 1960s. Along the way, he met Carol Dawson, the daughter of an Indiana newspaperman-turned-publicist for Sen. Homer Capehart (R-Ind.). They were married in 1960, and now have four children.

Bauman's break into national politics came at the expense of another personal tragedy, the suicide of Rep. William O. Mills, who shot himself in 1973 after it was disclosed that Mills had accepted illegal campaign contributions, filtered to him from the Nixon White House.

Once Bauman arrived in the House, he quickly assumed the self-appointed role of watchdog, filling the void left by the retirement of Iowa's legendary H. R. Gross. The irreverent freshman member, looking owlish in horn-rimmed glasses and three-piece suits that guarded his girth, soon gained the attention, if not the respect, of his colleagues, because of his knowledge of the rules and his almost total absence of humility in employing parliamentary technicalities to attack even the most revered member of the House.

To Bauman, those actions were essential to carry out his mission, as described by the 19th century British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who wrote that "the proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control that government."

To which Bauman has added his own caustic credo: "Anytime the House is in session, America is in danger."

In the past seven years, Bauman has honed his skills to the point that he has been called, among other less praisworthy names, "Acting Speaker."

Even in the wake of this month's disclosures, Rep. Paul N. McCloskey Jr. (R-Calif.), one of the GOP's most liberal members, calls Bauman "the most contributing member of the House the last two years." McCloskey added that when he met liberal Democratic Rep. John Burton in San Francisco this week, the topic of Bauman inevitably came up, and Burton said, "It's a tragedy. He's the only member on your side who keeps our leadership honest."

McCloskey credits Bauman with "single-handedly saving the nation $600 million a year" by forcing a recorded vote on cargo-preference legislation that Speaker O'Neil had ruled carried on a voice vote. It lost when members had to stand up and be counted on what McCloskey critized as "a deal Carter had cut with the maritime unions."

As to charges that Bauman has been a hypocrite for posturing on the House floor as an advocate of traditional family values while living a secret life in the boozy shadows of Washington's gay community, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) offers an analogy.

"I'm overweight," Hyde acknowledges, "but I can give a helluva speech on the problems of overeating, and be very sincere, and still not be able to live up" to his words. Because Bauman "firmly believes in those moral postulates he has spoken about, it is all the more painful to fall," added his friend Hyde.

Still, even Bauman's staunchest defenders concede that, as McCloskey put it, "if Bauman's enthusiasm for criticism is dimmed, that's good. If the hypocrisy of breaching Christanity and morality is accompanied by a little humility, that's all the better."

But back on the Eastern Shore, there is a general sense among many of those who admired Bauman for his black-and-white moral stance that "he has deceived us," as Pocomoke City business-woman Olive Lippoldt said, that he was "living two lives." Some call Bauman a hypocrite, but indeed the three-term congressman reiterated in his first public appearance after his legal encounter that he is a man who thinks "there are things that are right and wrong. I have done wrong, but those standards have to be upheld."

Others question Bauman's assertion that he is an alcoholic, calling it, as one Easton shore owner did, a "subterfuge."

But for all those condemning Bauman there seem to be just as many willing to praise and forgive.

At a Maryland Right to Life convention north of Baltimore, John Sions clasped Bauman's hand heartily and said, "For what you've done for us, we'll never be able to repay you." After a keynote speech by Bauman at a Potomac River conference in southern Maryland, lawyer Henry Stetina paused to have his picture taken with the congressman and told him, "I want to shake hands with a man of great personal courage."

Back in Easton, at Trader's Drugs, where the morning coffee crowd was shocked into silence three weeks ago by the headline: "Bauman Faces D.C. Sex Charge; Admits He's An Alcoholic, the election is still a tossup. "When it first happened, I said I would never vote for the that man," a local businessman said last week. "Now I am still leaning against him, but I don't know. I wonder. Guess I won't know til I walk into the voting booth."