They say money is the mother's milk of politics, a hoary maxim the gambling industry has taken to heart, ladling a rich cream of cash on courthouses and statehouses across the country to protect, promote and expand state-sanctioned games of chance.

And lately, the gambling industry has been throwing a lot of chips into the nation's biggest political game, earning a high-profile reputation as one of the fastest-rising contributors to federal campaign coffers while also assembling an impressive array of top-drawer lobbying talent, including former Republican Party chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, who now heads the commercial casino industry's top lobbying outfit.But the gambling industry's big political bets haven't won that many jackpots at the state level. Since 1994, multimillion-dollar campaigns to legalize casinos or to expand existing forms of gambling have been defeated in Ohio, Arkansas, Connecticut, Washington, Florida and, just last month, Oklahoma. Gambling has run into a rising tide of grass-roots opposition aroused by the pervasive influence of a $48 billion industry legalized in all but two states - Utah and Hawaii.

Big bucks have bought two thin wins - a $10 million campaign resulted in a narrow victory in 1996 for pro-gambling forces interested in bringing three casinos to Detroit and an equal amount spent in a 1996 referendum in Louisiana preserved riverboat casinos and the now-bankrupt land-based casino in New Orleans in the face of swelling opposition.

Against the backdrop of this burgeoning public backlash, the gambling industry's monied political clout is drawing closer scrutiny and is creating a public relations problem of its own. Critics are lambasting the apparent ease of the industry's political access at both the state and federal level, calling it a classic case of politicians getting too close to an industry they license, regulate and depend on for campaign contributions and revenue.

Anti-gambling advocates are quick to link this above-board political influence to the out-and-out corruption evidenced by gambling-related bribery cases involving legislators in Arizona, Louisiana, West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky and South Carolina.

"It corrupts. It buys," said Tom Grey, a former infantryman and Methodist preacher who heads the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. "It's the only way it can sustain itself. It's a product that can't sell itself; all it has is money."

Industry officials say they are merely advancing their interests in the political arena, playing a legitimate game the way the rules say it should be played.

"We are a business like any other business," said Gary Burhop, vice president of corporate relations for Harrah's, one of the biggest players in the casino industry. "I don't see how we're any different than any other industry heavily regulated by state government making its case in the public arena."

But Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a gambling opponent and co-sponsor of legislation that established a National Gambling Impact Study Commission, scoffs at such benign phrases.

"Do you think the gambling industry is giving money to a politician because they like your position on Iraq or capital gains? That isn't the way it works," he said. "The corruption potential of contributions from the gaming industry is my biggest worry."

Because of the patchwork nature of reporting requirements on the state level, gambling's clout is difficult to tally. A 1997 estimate by Mother Jones magazine said the gambling industry spent more than $100 million in campaign contributions and lobbying fees the previous five years.

While states like Louisiana and Arizona provide examples of outright political corruption related to gambling, Illinois is rapidly becoming the poster child for the gambling industry's version of that time-honored and legal connection between politicians and the economic interests they regulate - the revolving door.

Since riverboat casinos hit the state in 1991, the gambling industry has hired a former governor, a former director of state police, a former state attorney general, a former Chicago mayor and a former state Senate president and state House majority leader.

Former Gov. Jim Thompson's representation of gambling interests is particularly ironic. As a U.S. attorney, he successfully pressed conspiracy and bribery charges against former Gov. Otto Kerner related to the horse-racing industry.

Political spending by gambling interests in Illinois jumped from $50,000 in 1990 to $1 million in the 1993-94 legislative cycle, according to the Illinois Legislative Studies Center at the University of Illinois-Springfield. Another $1.2 million was spent in the 1995-96 cycle as riverboat casino owners pushed for liberalized rules that allowed more gambling.

"There's just all kinds of evidence of coziness between politicians and gambling interests," said Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based political watchdog. "You not only have an unholy alliance, you have an unsavory alliance between a private interest who wants to make more money and the politicians who regulate them, who also want money for their campaigns."

In Louisiana, a two-year FBI probe into allegations that more than a dozen legislators were taking bribes from gambling interests netted a relatively meager haul - two legislators.

But federal prosecutors are now looking at the role of oft-indicted former Gov. Edwin Edwards in a riverboat casino license won by a group fronted by San Francisco 49ers president Edward DeBartolo Jr., who has stepped down from his post and withdrawn from the project in the wake of notice from prosecutors that he and Edwards would be the subject of a grand jury probe.

Anti-gambling activists in Louisiana say they are more worried about the gambling industry's above-board control of the state government than the bribes taken by state legislators.

"The legitimate control of politics by gambling is much bigger, much more serious than bribery and corruption," said C.B. Forgotston, a New Orleans attorney and outspoken critic of gambling who worked on Edwards' staff. "In this state, it's total control."

In the months before the 1996 referendum on gambling, a strong, grass-roots backlash emerged among voters angered by the proliferation of riverboat casinos and video poker parlors throughout the state. To stave off this sentiment, gambling interests spent an estimated $10 million, said Forgotston, and managed to preserve all forms of gambling in parishes that had riverboats, horse racing and the state's only land-based casino in New Orleans.

On the federal level, gambling interests have become the noisy new kid on the block, rapidly organizing the American Gaming Association, a casino industry lobbying outfit headed by Fahrenkopf, and buying lobbying talent on both sides of the political aisle.

In reaction to a short-lived 1994 Clinton administration proposal to tax gambling profits to fund welfare reform, the industry ramped up its political contributions to candidates by 83 percent from 1994 to 1996, the third-fastest rate of growth among industry groups giving money to politicians, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics of Washington, D.C.

Some cynics say the Clinton tax proposal was simply a way to shake money out of the gambling industry. But in terms of raw dollars, the $2.1 million total places gambling interests in the bottom third of industry groups giving money to federal politicians, according to the center's computer analysis, dwarfed by the $44 million donated by lawyers and the $27 million donated by doctors and other health professionals.

Again, that money has bought mixed results. The gambling industry failed to kill Wolf's impact study commission, but it succeeded in getting three industry-sympathetic people on the nine-member body, which is holding hearings across the country to assess the social and economic impacts of legalized gambling.