A slap to the face in Washington turned quickly into front-page headlines, parliamentary questions and calls to radio talk shows today as Canadians at all walks of life took aim at Sondra Gotlieb, the high-profile wife of the Canadian ambassador to Washington.

"Wife of ambassador delivers slap that reverberates in two capitals" said the headline in the Toronto Globe and Mail, referring to the incident Wednesday night in Washington when Gotlieb slapped her social secretary at a black-tie dinner hosted by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

"Slap gives us black eye," yelled the racy tabloid Toronto Sun, which also labeled it as a "cat fight." There was brief allusion to the incident in the House of Commons as opposition critics attacked Mulroney's action in Washington during the official vist this week. On the radio call-in shows and in parliamentary caucus rooms there were weak puns and jokes aplenty, including talk about pitting Gotlieb against some of Canada's professional prize fighters.

Mulroney's aides, clearly hoping the incident would blow over, as even critics predicted it would, sounded strained and disappointed as the substance of his trip was overshadowed by Gotlieb's forceful slap, which knocked off one of social secretary Connie Connor's earrings.

"There's a certain sense of 'isn't that incredible,' " said Tim Woods, spokesman for the opposition New Democratic Party. "What is incredible is that this woman has created a role for herself, and now we are going to have to live with it in terms of the kind of image she's creating, in terms of the column she writes and the incident the other evening."

Many Canadians long have expressed a certain ambivalence about the job performed by Gotlieb and her husband, Allan, a former Rhodes scholar and longtime high-level civil servant.

On the one hand, Canadians who frequently complain about being ignored in the United States seem to express a certain pride that she has garnered recognition for Canada in Washington with the couple's celebrated embassy parties and with the satirical column she writes for the Op-Ed page of The Washington Post on the life style of the capital's elite.

On the other hand, many question whether these activities ultimately benefit Canada or just the Gotliebs. The accusation leveled against them among critics is that they have "gone native" and occasionally there are even suggestions that they will never return to Canada.

Last fall, when the Canadian government became embroiled with the U.S. multinational corporation Gulf & Western Industries, Inc. about a takeover that involved the Canadian subsidiary of Prentice-Hall, the textbook publisher, The Globe and Mail, many artists and writers here and senior civil servants in Ottawa pointedly questioned whether Gotlieb was acting on Canada's behalf or whether he was representing the interests of his dinner guests in Washington.

In a letter leaked to the press during that controversy, Gotlieb warned a Mulroney Cabinet minister that Washington lawyer Robert Strauss was threatening a "scorched earth" reprisal against Canada for the government's efforts to block the takeover. The Globe and Mail suggested that the ambassador seemed to be more in sympathy with Strauss' position than with Canada's. His defenders said Gotlieb simply was passing on intelligence.

Many of those familiar with the political process in Washington, however, give the ambassador high marks for his efforts, saying that he has understood the U.S. political process far better than his predecessors and has, among other accomplishments, effectively lobbied Congress to protect Canada from harsh retaliatory trade measures.

Although Gotlieb had been a member of former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau's inner circle and reportedly was regarded initially with broad suspicion by Mulroney, he has retained his position, observers say, because of a belief in Ottawa that he is an effective presence in Washington.

"I think he's extremely bright," said Keith Spicer, editor of the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. "I think the positive side is they have put Canada on the cocktail map."

An editor at a Toronto newspaper, noting the glee with which the story was being treated, added that the attitude at his paper and elsewhere in Canada reflected a certain jealousy by their compatriots of Canadians who become successful in the United States, saying musicians, novelists and artists all have suffered from this attitude.

A character in a popular stage play, "Jitters," that ran several weeks here earlier this year, exults at one point at the prospect of going to New York and becoming successful and famous, then does a double take, adding: "They punish you in Canada for success."

Although Sondra Gotlieb's Washington Post column is in the form of a letter to a fictitious friend in Canada, editors and publishers of major Canadian newspapers have declined offers to run it.

"I can imagine how it could seem amusing and wacky in Washington," one editor said yesterday, "but it didn't really fly for us."

Even sharp critics of the Gotliebs and Mulroney said they guessed that the sniping would pass during the weekend. But in the meantime, columnists and critics were having a field day.