As one of the most conservative members of the new class of Republican House freshmen, Rep. Linda A. Smith (R-Wash.) has supported the Second Amendment rights of gun owners "forever," according to an associate.

But when Smith returned to her district during the recent congressional recess, gun-owning members of the state's militia organization indignantly chastised her at community meetings for voting for a GOP-backed bill easing restrictions on federal prosecutors' use of certain evidence obtained during police searches.

To clear the air, she invited David Darby, state commander of the United States Militia Association, to come to her district office for a discussion on April 10. "They felt her vote was eroding Fourth Amendment rights {against unreasonable searches}. She disagreed," a Smith spokesman said.

It was one example of the spreading militia movement's increased involvement in the political and legislative process as conservatives move into positions of power in Washington and state capitals.

The ties with elected officials appear to be loose and informal, evolving naturally out of a shared belief in the need to drastically reduce the federal intrusion that threatens property rights and constitutional liberties.

Compared with the extensive, well-financed, and superbly organized political activism of groups such as those in the Christian right, the political activities of the militias appear to be amateurish and often counterproductive. But in return for grass-roots support, some members of Congress, along with state officials and state legislators, have provided access and help to militia leaders.

Freshman Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), whose successful 1994 campaign was aided by volunteers from the Blackfoot, Idaho-based U.S. Militia Association, has introduced a bill in the House that would require federal law enforcement agents to obtain written permission from local sheriffs before making an arrest or search.

The Chenoweth legislation is strongly backed by militia organizations, some of which do not recognize the authority of any law enforcement agency above the county level. Idaho militia leader Sam Sherwood testified at a congressional hearing in Boise in March on the "excessive use of federal force."

Contacts between militia groups and congressional offices first gained national attention when it was revealed that a mysterious bulletin about the Oklahoma City bombing was faxed to the office of Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.) on the morning of the explosion. The fax was sent by Libby Molley, an associate of Michigan Militia member Mark Koernke, who also had a shortwave radio program until it was taken off the air last week.

"Stockman never owned a gun until a couple of months ago and doesn't know these militias," said attorney Kent Adams, a Stockman friend and local GOP leader in Jefferson County, Texas. The support of gun owners, however, was crucial to Stockman in his upset victory Nov. 8 over veteran Rep. Jack Brooks (D).

Brooks, a longtime opponent of gun control, lost the support of the National Rifle Association and other gun groups when he reluctantly voted for the 1994 crime bill, which banned some assault weapons.

During the campaign, Stockman posed for photos in front of a bumper sticker that read, "Fight crime, shoot back," and blistered Brooks for his support of the crime legislation.

In March, Stockman wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno, telling her of his concern about a rumored federal plan to raid armed citizens groups, after being approached by Neil Watt, regimental commander of the Texas Light Infantry, a citizen militia with about 100 members.

The Justice Department, which dismissed the report as a "figment of their imagination," also received letters passing on concerns of militia groups from Reps. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), Karen L. Thurman (D-Fla.), Mac Collins (R-Ga.) and James V. Hansen (R-Utah), and Sens. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) and Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.).

Whether such contacts will be a liability for politicians is likely to depend on local political conditions and the outcome of the Oklahoma City investigation. Militia leaders have universally condemned the terrorism.

But the contacts clearly have the potential for embarrassment. The Idaho Statesman recently reported that the Militia of Montana is using a video of a Chenoweth speech to raise money and recruit members. The speech shows Chenoweth discussing the spiritual war between "God-fearing Americans and environmentalists," according to the newspaper.

Chenoweth's spokeswoman said the congresswoman was attempting to stop the unauthorized use of the videotape.

While condemning the tactics of the Montana militia, however, Chenoweth has refused to distance herself from Sherwood or the Idaho militia in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and intense media scrutiny. "I appreciate all people who worked for me and that includes Sam Sherwood," she said.

Sherwood has been in hot water for his statements. After a meeting with Lt. Gov. Butch Otter in Boise March 2, Sherwood warned that civil war was coming. "Go up and look {Idaho} legislators in the face, because some day you may have to blow it off," he said, according to the Associated Press.

Sherwood said later that the organization had warned members to conduct their affairs "according to the codes and statutes as defined and as they understand them, be they in the individual's opinion just or unjust."

After the April 19 bombing, Chenoweth's statements came under attack when she suggested that "we still must begin to look at the public policies that may be pushing people too far."

"Whether she realizes it or not, Chenoweth is quickly becoming the poster child" for paramilitary groups, the Idaho Statesman wrote in an editorial.

Chenoweth shot back that it was "outrageous and grotesque and incredibly cynical to suggest that participation in a legitimate discussion on the proper role of federal law enforcement is to blame for this kind of wanton crime."

In February, Chenoweth and Stockman, along with dozens of Democrats, voted against the Republican leadership's bill easing the rules on use of evidence by prosecutors.

Chenoweth, appointed to a special six-member House firearms task force by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), suggested at a March 31 hearing of a House Judiciary subcommittee that Switzerland was not invaded in World Wars I and II "because the responsible citizens had the right to bear arms."

In addition to contacts between Chenoweth and members of the militia, the Statesman also has reported that Otter, the lieutenant governor, and Secretary of State Pete Canarrusa have met publicly with militia members.

Sherwood says that in addition to Chenoweth, his organization worked to elect Gov. Phil Batt (R) and Superintendent of Public Instruction Anne Fox, a conservative who sought unsuccessfully to prevent the Idaho school system from accepting federal "Goals 2000" education reform funds.

In Michigan, where there is also a sizable militia organization, politicians have been reluctant to condemn its activities. Although the groups are "not in the mainstream," Gov. John Engler (R) said there is "no indication they were created for the express purpose of bombing government buildings."

After the Oklahoma City bombing, New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson (R) met with five militia leaders he called "responsible, reasonable, lawful" people.

"I'm viewing this as groups that are very patriotic," the first-term Republican said, according to the Associated Press. "Of course, they talk about their rights to arm themselves. I realize that's part of it. But personally, I don't view them as arming themselves against the federal government."

But the meeting, set up before the bombing, did not sit well with Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, a Democrat. Chavez had urged Johnson to cancel the meeting because of reported encounters between suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing and militias.