Richard Fore, president of a national landlord lobby, doesn't like the term "landlord." To him, it sounds feudal and evil, like "warlord" or "robber baron." He worries that people think of landlords as guys who bounce widows into the streets.

"We prefer to be called 'owners,'" says Fore, whose lobbying group, the National Multi-Housing Council, is bent on crushing rent control.

Laden with a centuries-old image problem, landlords lately have found themselves defeated in city after city by inflation-pinched tennants who are seeking relief, and often getting it, in the form of local laws to hold down rents.

But now landlords are counteracttacking on the state and federal levels, and sometimes they are winning. Fore's group, a collection of big developers and apartment-building owners, plans to push next year for a federal law to deny millions of dollars in housing subsidies to cities that have rent controls.

The council isn't being taken lightly. "What they lack in numbers they make up in dough, so watch out," says Rep. Henry Reuss, the Wisconsin Democrat who is chairman of the House Banking Committee.

Actually, the council has a yearly budget of only $500,000, a political-contributions fund of barely $50,000 and a full-time staff of just six people, who spend most of their time aiding local landlord groups and trying to "educate" the public. "We have a lot of journalists calling," Fore says proudly.

The council is part of a loose anti-rent-control alliance arranged a year ago by industry groups representing real estate operators, builders, mortgage bankers and savings and loan associations. Together the member groups control several million dollars in political contributions.

Fore's group was formed 2 1/2 years ago for the sole purpose of combating the spread of rent-control ordinances. "We were notably unsuccessful," he says. The group counts nine states in which rent controls have sprung up, plus the District of Columbia. Controls have been considered in 22 other states.

The local battles continue, with mixed results. Voters rejected rent controls earlier this month in Seattle, Oakland and San Diego. But voters in Thousands Oaks, Calif., decided against repealing their rent controls. Los Angeles County exempted newly constructed apartments from controls, but the city of Los Angeles rejected such a move.

A new strategy is emerging among housing interests. "We said, 'Let's take this out of the local jurisdiction: we're getting beaten time and again,'" Fore said. The new goal is to get state laws adopted that forbid localities to enact controls. Such a drive was successful in Florida, where a 1977 law prohibits localities from controlling rates on apartments that rent for less than $250 a month.

Miami real estate man Kenneth Rosen helped organize a lobbying effort that he called "Operation Eyeball." Pairs of lobbyists called on each legislator to recite face-to-face the alleged evils of rent control: higher taxes for homeowners, costly bureaucracies, fewer rental units and even lower pay raises for city workers due to falling city real estate tax.

After the eyeball-to-eyeball lobbying, the legislators blinked. "For all practical purposes, we've won our battle," Rosen writes in a pamphlet distributed by the National Association of Realtors

But the Florida success hasn't been widely duplicated. Instead, the most promising recent turn of events for landlords came in August at the federal level, when the House approved a measure that showed disapproval of rent controls. It would have denied funds for a proposed new rent-subsidy program to any locality that controls rents on newly built apartments.

The measure was introduced by a Republican, Rep. Chalmers Wylie of Ohio. Its passage astounded even Fore's group. Nevertheless, the landlord lobby was delighted by the healthy 239-to-162 vote passing the measure, and billed it later as a major victory for opponents of rent control.

The Wylie amendment died when a House-Senate conference committee killed the subsidy legislation to which it was attached. But Fore vows to exploit this anti-control sentiment next year by pressing for even stronger measures to deny urban aid money to cities with controls. "Should we subsidize communities that have taken a suicidal path with rent control?" he asks rhetorically.

The conservative landslide in this month's national election, giving the Republicans control of the Senate, may have enhanced chances for passage of such a measure. Fore has been named to a panel of advisers by President-elect Ronald Reagan to deal with housing issues.

For the moment, though, the landlord groups are working on their image problem. The Realtors association is distributing a film, titled "A Roof for Tomorrow," that features a gray-haired woman who explains that she is, of all things, a landlady with 20 tenants. "I've never tried to rip off any of them," she says sweetly.

The film casts rent controls themselves as the villian. It shows block after block of abandoned New York City apartment buildings while the narrator says controls caused the devastation. The secene looks like newsreels of bombed-out Berlin after World War II. An association official says the film is intended as "soft sell," a description that might cause viewers to wonder what the hard stuff would look like.