By Susan M. Cover

AUGUSTA - She's been called a warrior, an economic guardian and a moderate.

Now another label - political pragmatist - is helping propel U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe to the forefront of a debate over how to manage a wartime economy.

Her increasingly prominent role on Capitol Hill, as shown by a commitment she secured from the GOP leadership to revisit provisions of the recently adopted homeland security bill that concern her, indicate a mounting influence she's wielding inside the beltway.

Snowe recently was named chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. This latest appointment will put Snowe in a position to direct economic policy, along with her other 2003 priorities - passing a prescription drug bill, national security and the war on terrorism. 'The mandate of the last election is for getting things done,' said Snowe, a Republican.

Snowe has served on the small business committee since she began her Senate tenure in 1995. As chairwoman, she will set the agenda.

'Sen. Snowe has always been a very strong advocate for small business,' said Dana Connors, president and chief executive officer of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. 'As chair, this puts her in a position of even more influence.'

Small business issues, such as a growing concern about health- care costs, are vitally important in Maine where 90 percent of businesses employ fewer than 20 people, he said.

Snowe, an Augusta native, said she will talk with business leaders in Maine and around the country to get a sense of what the committee should address. She already knows tax issues, regulation and health care are concerns.

'It's clear to me there are several major issues,' she said. 'Not the least of which is the affordability of health care.'

Snowe and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who was re-elected Nov. 5, provide a unique voice for Maine in the Senate, as two of 13 women serving in the chamber.

Collins will take over as chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee in January, a position likely to thrust the Republican into the limelight since the committee will have oversight of the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

'It's particularly important to Maine because of our coastline and the vulnerability of ports,' Collins said.

Collins said she will continue to work cooperatively despite Republican control.

'Regardless of the change of the makeup, the balance of power lies with those of us in the middle,' she said.

While Collins' stature on domestic affairs seems to be on the rise, it's Snowe - with her moderate underpinnings, legislative acumen, and strong bonds with colleagues dating back to her time in the U.S. House - who's seen as an emerging force on Capitol Hill.

A willingness to work across party lines is a Snowe trademark and political observers say she will continue to be a voice of reason in a time when her party controls Congress.

'She's a moderating influence and will work to get bipartisan agreement in a fractious environment,' said Barbara O'Connor, director of the California-based Institute for the Study of Politics and Media. 'We need her badly.'

Election Day, and a subsequent runoff election in Louisiana last week, left Republicans with a two-seat majority in the Senate.

O'Connor, a professor at California State University in Sacramento, said Snowe and other women in politics are more inclined than men to seek consensus. And even though Republicans will wield the power, they still need help from the Democrats.

'Effective women, particularly older women, have developed an ability to read people well and to include them,' O'Connor said.

Snowe, 55, is a veteran politician, having served in the Maine House and Senate and the U.S. House and Senate. She spent 16 years representing Maine's 2nd District before her 1994 election to a U.S. Senate seat.

She handily won a second six-year term in 2000.

Snowe is the first woman in American history to serve in both houses of a state legislature and both houses of Congress.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, said Snowe and Kerry have worked together on issues, including those important to the fishing industry.

'She has always been willing to work across party lines on behalf of the Northeast issues that we share,' said Kelley Benander, Kerry's press secretary.

That kind of attitude is necessary in the Senate, where neither party greatly outnumbers the other and both parties remember what it feels like not to be in power, she said.

'If anything, senators have a better sense that even if you are in the majority, it's still very closely divided,' Benander said.

Larry J. Sabato, a government and foreign affairs professor at the University of Virginia, said Snowe may be a moderate, but she's no Jim Jeffords. Jeffords, a Vermont senator, left Republicans reeling last year when he quit the party to become an independent.

'Snowe is a prominent moderate voice who, unlike Jim Jef fords, is considered loyal to the Republican Party,' Sabato said. 'She is closely listened to, has the ear of the party leadership, and given the sad experience the Republicans had with Jeffords, (Senate Majority Leader) Trent Lott is bound to take her comments seriously.'

Chris Potholm, a Bowdoin College political science professor, describes Snowe as the 'most successful warrior in Maine politics since 1946' in his book 'An Insider's Guide to Maine Politics.'

'Congressional Quarterly,' the influential publication covering Washington, has identified her as an 'economic guardian' and one of 28 lawmakers expected to assume more authority and influence in Congress.

Snowe was first elected to office in 1973 when she took over a seat in the Maine House of Representatives after her first husband, Peter Snowe, died in a car accident. She later married John R. McKernan Jr., who served two terms as Maine governor in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Collins and Snowe have shown the kind of ability that makes them effective leaders, said Sharon Miller, a former Snowe campaign manager.

'I just think when we believe in something, getting done what she wants to get done is her prime objective,' Miller said. 'Not scoring political points.'

In fact, Miller said Maine will benefit from the mounting influence of the senator.

'When she's committed, it's pretty hard to say no to her,' she said.

Snowe serves as the Republican co-chairwoman of the Senate Centrist Coalition, made up of 35 senators in both parties who meet weekly to find common ground on issues. For Snowe and Democratic co- chairman Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, it's all about getting things done.

'Both at the end of the day want to see achievements instead of gridlock,' said Snowe spokesman Dave Lackey.

Snowe also serves on the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the Senate Budget Committee.

The new makeup of the Senate may allow for more action on things of importance to Snowe, such as prescription drugs and helping the uninsured, Lackey said. If President Bush pushes for another economic stimulus package that includes tax cuts, Snowe will examine the proposal carefully, he said.

'Sen. Snowe has been concerned about making sure these decisions are fiscally responsible,' he said.