His face pinkens with exertion as he lifts the tightly bound bundles of mail onto a desk in a back corner of a Washington, D.C., congressional office. He snips the plastic binding with scissors and sorts through the contents.

In his mid-60s, skinny and bowlegged with a face leathered by sun and wind, he seems ill-suited for a big-city office job. Reading glasses perch on his nose. The top button of his blue oxford has yet to be fastened. The jacket of his western-cut suit--gray, with an iridescent cast--rests across the back of a chair. Pointy, black-and-royal-blue cowboy boots and a clunky, turquoise belt buckle complete the ensemble.

He performs his small tasks deftly, stacking hand-addressed letters from constituents to one side for later perusal and sorting quickly through piles of periodicals and government documents. He divides the latter by category, placing pieces in slots assigned to members of the office staff. He tosses out as much as he keeps, scoffing at the waste perpetrated by special interest groups.

No one has told him that he must arrive by 6 a.m. each day, driving through a hazy chocolate dawn toward the fluorescent glow that protects the Capitol buildings. The first of his co-workers won't arrive for hours. He savors the quiet, back here by the window.

Meet Bob Stump. If he is elected to a ninth term next fall, he'll be Arizona's senior member on Capitol Hill, the dean of the state's congressional delegation.

After 17 years in Congress, he still opens his own mail in Washington and harvests his own cotton near Tolleson, west of Phoenix.

The question: What else does he do?
@body:In 1977, Arizona's congressional delegation was small but formidable. At the helm sat senior senator Barry Goldwater, House minority leader John Rhodes Jr., and Morris Udall, chairman of the House Interior Committee.

That's the year that Bob Stump, a longtime state legislator and conservative Democrat, benefited from Sam Steiger's decision to relinquish his seat in Congressional District 3 to make an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.

Stump won Steiger's old seat and got a taste of the delegation's power early on, after President Jimmy Carter yanked funding for the Central Arizona Project. The delegation worked cohesively to have the funding restored--and even increased by a few million dollars.

Such tales are ancient lore. Long gone are Goldwater, Rhodes and Udall--and with them, Arizona's clout. Last May, the Capitol Hill-based newspaper Roll Call ranked the state a dismal 47th in influence in Congress, ahead of only South Dakota, New Hampshire and Idaho. The paper's assessment: If not for Senator Dennis DeConcini, a three-termer with influential committee assignments, the state would rank at the bottom.

DeConcini announced last month that he will not seek reelection in 1994. As a senator with as much tenure as Stump, DeConcini has been the unofficial leader of the delegation. But DeConcini says it's been a long time since the delegation worked together effectively; he blames partisanship more than lack of clout.

Days after announcing his decision to bow out, DeConcini laments that while the delegation is supposed to gather once a month, it's been two months since the last meeting. The meetings "used to be very good," he says, but it's been a long time since they were constructive. Other state delegations work well together, DeConcini muses, noting that Nebraska's members meet once a week for breakfast.

Can Bob Stump save the day, uniting the delegation and building Arizona's clout in Congress? He has earned tremendous seniority in the House of Representatives--18th now, among members of his party. But he hasn't earned a reputation as an outspoken leader, either in his party or state delegation.

He cast what many call the most important vote of his career during his first year in Congress, giving the deciding nod to Texas' Jim Wright in the race for House majority leader.

Since then, Stump has stuck to the ultraconservative sidelines, rarely venturing into the thick of any political games. He's made big headlines just once--in 1981, when he switched his affiliation to the minority party, the GOP.

Stump's defection prompted Udall to quip that he could hold Arizona Democratic House caucus meetings in his bathtub.

Over the years, Stump hasn't varied. His 1976 campaign literature promises "independence of thought" and a "don't-spend-it-if-you-haven't-got-it philosophy." He's best known in Congress as a perpetual naysayer, casting votes against almost all spending programs. Conservatives from both sides of the aisle call him a moral compass. Critics say his extremism renders him ineffective, that he's done nothing for his district and state, and that Arizona would be in big trouble with Stump at the helm in Washington, D.C.

"I don't take as much pride in his nonactivism as he does," says the irascible Steiger, who, without holding elective office, has remained far more visible than Stump. "Fascist votes don't get anything done. . . . You've gotta convince the people."
For the most part, Stump avoids the people; it's hard to say whether he's snobby or shy. He's cordial and soft-spoken in conversation--until something ticks him off.