By Garry Clifford
Updated October 15, 1979 12:00 PM

Ever since Philip Crane arrived in the capital 10 years ago as a tenderfoot Republican congressman from Illinois, his wife Arlene’s tart (and some say tasteless) wisecracks have spiked the punch at many a dreary reception. “A complete screwball,” a friend says approvingly. “Delightful.” But after Phil announced his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination 14 months ago, Arlene’s tongue—generally agreed to be the sharpest instrument to needle Washington since Martha Mitchell’s—has been uncharacteristically quiet. Most of the time.

Early this year she and her husband were the targets of a vicious hatchet job by William Loeb’s notorious Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader (which prefers Ronald Reagan, though Crane is further to the right). The paper accused the Cranes of heavy drinking and extramarital hanky-panky. The couple denied the unproved charges, and now agree the attack only strengthened their 20-year marriage. It also increased the little-known candidate’s name-recognition score by 50 percent in the state. But by May the campaign was still lackluster, and 12 senior members of the staff resigned en masse. Arlene was accused of meddling and of fomenting unrest, and a long article in the Washington Star portrayed her as a liability to her husband’s cause.

Last month Mrs. Crane may have justified the description while appearing in her husband’s behalf at a fund-raising party given for Republican hopefuls by John and Elizabeth Taylor Warner. “My husband,” she told the 3,700 guests, “is the father of our eight children, and when people ask me why he wants to be the father of his country too, I tell them it’s because he’s so well-equipped.” The crowd roared at the double entendre, while Arlene paused for effect. “In any case, may the best man win—my husband.” “Oh-oh,” Arlene said later, “I think I’ve done it again.” Indeed she had. “Bad taste,” sniffed one GOP worker. “She’s smart, but sometimes she doesn’t use judgment.”

Since then Mrs. Crane has kept her mouth firmly closed in public, albeit with help. When she travels with Phil on his campaign sorties these days, an omnipresent aide tapes her every interview and signals when she looks as if she’s about to commit a boo-boo. Thus, at a recent campaign cookout in Framingham, Mass., Arlene spotted a lady wearing a “John Sears for City Council” button. Assured he was not the same John Sears who masterminds Ronald Reagan’s campaigns, she begged for a button. “I want to wear it,” she giggled, “and see Phil’s reaction.” But then the aide whispered in her ear, and Arlene quietly pocketed the button.

A former model and aspiring actress who attended Chicago’s Academy of Fine Arts, Arlene usually stays home in McLean, Va. when Phil tours. With seven kids still in residence, there is the house to run—not to mention six laundry loads a day, including the congressman’s shirts. (She also cuts his hair.) “Her biggest contribution,” says Crane, “is to be both mother and father to the kids when I’m away.”

Late last month, however, on the weekend of her 47th birthday, she went along on her husband’s 30th foray into the early primary states. It was a disappointing swing through Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and fewer than 300 diehard partisans turned out to hear the bright (he’s a Ph.D. in history) but uninspiring campaigner. If anything, he seemed to need a little ginger from Arlene, who was carefully circumspect. Mindful of the aide in the pinstriped suit, she admitted, “In the future, I might have to curb my desire to zap.” Did the quiet role bother her? “A little,” Arlene replied, then added bravely, “I’m very flexible.”