A few days after Christmas, Catherine Poneras called the Republican State Committee of Delaware to reserve a table for eight at a Wilmington fund-raiser for Texas Gov. George W. Bush set for mid-January.

No problem, she was told. Bring a check for $800 and pay at the door. Poneras, who lives in Philadelphia, called again a few days later and got directions. Then her boss, Ceci Schickel, wanted to get a table. She called Jan. 7 and reserved for 10 people. Again, no problem.

But when the women turned up last week at Wilmington's Hotel du Pont with their colleagues, including several clergy members, they were told their reservations could not be honored because the $100-a-plate event was sold out.

Poneras and Schickel believe they know why their group was shut out of the hotel's Gold Ballroom: They work with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national anti-poverty network of congregation-based groups. IAF has vowed to dog all the presidential candidates about inner-city problems and is vigorously promoting the "living wage" standard, which would require companies getting federal subsidies to pay a minimum annual salary of $25,000.

"It was shocking to be disregarded like that," said Poneras, 25, a staff associate at the IAF affiliate, Philadelphia Interfaith Action. She is also a registered Republican, she noted, and like others in the group, she denied they intended to disrupt the Jan. 12 luncheon. "We're not the type of people to cause a ruckus in a civilized type of setting," said Poneras, adding playfully: "We didn't bring any whistles. We all dressed up, we all showered."

A Bush campaign official said yesterday that the campaign had nothing to do with planning the event and knew nothing of the group's reservations being canceled. The Bush aide, who asked not to be named, said: "We didn't make the decision, it wasn't our event--it was the Delaware state committee's."

Delaware GOP Chairman Basil Battaglia said that when the fund-raiser "became oversubscribed the night before," his staff realized the two names in which the IAF tables were reserved "were the two people we couldn't find their addresses, we didn't know who they were." It was only during the event, he added, that he discovered "they were with a group that was advocating a cause."

"About eight other people" with reservations had their checks returned, he added.

The IAF people said their suspicions of being deliberately excluded were heightened when journalists exiting the ballroom reported seeing some empty tables. One reporter, who asked not to be named, said she saw two tables with only two people seated and two other tables with no one.

"There's no doubt in my mind that it was directed at us," said the Rev. Seamus Finn, an Oblate priest who heads his order's Office of Peace and Justice. The office is part of Washington Interfaith Network, IAF's local affiliate.

Finn believes "the Bush folks" were nervous that they would not "be able to control any questions we wanted to ask--if indeed there would have been an opportunity to ask questions." The group wanted to ask Bush to meet with IAF to discuss the "living wage," he said.

The fund-raiser, which drew about 400 people, came one day after a Washington news conference at which IAF officials took Democratic as well as GOP presidential candidates to task for talking about personal religious experiences and "faith-based initiatives" but ignoring poverty issues.

IAF plans to send a large delegation to New Hampshire next week to prod the candidates on such issues as affordable housing.

Staff writer Terry M. Neal contributed to the report.