State Sen. Victor L. Crawford (D-Montgomery) thought it was an obvious joke when he walked up to Peter F. O'Malley with a proposition.

"Instead of the convention center, we'll put a prison in Largo, how's that for a compromise," said Crawford to an amazed O'Malley. "It's a joke," Crawford quickly added. "A joke."

The day had been long for O'Malley, the Prince George's County attorney and political power who put together the joint private business-state funding package for a $35 million proposed convention center in Largo.

Yesterday and today O'Malley made extremely rare public visits to Annapolis to openly seek out Prince George's County delegates and "answer all the questions" they might have about the project that requires legislative approval this session of $20 million in state bonds for its construction.

Such visits are extraordinary, as O'Malley said, because he generally shuns the limelight. But O'Malley said he came down to "personally answer all the misconceptions and rumors" about the center.

And at a briefing before the delegation this morning, O'Malley took full credit for the project, saying it was his planning "that put the whole thing together after Winnie (County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr.) pulled out."

"When Kelly announced through the papers that the convention center was over I was dissapointed . . . I went down to see Winnie and he said my idea to enlist private money was great but there was not a way in the world that it would work," O'Malley said.

So O'Malley went to his office, closed the door and "tinkered with some figures" until he came up with the plan that he only fully unveiled today. During the briefing he made a number of remarks indicating he was dissapointed with Kelly, another rarity in the county that prides itself on having a "solid organization," headed by O'Malley, Hoyer and Kelly.

It was O'Malley who called his "friends" and put the deal together after Kelly showed he "wasn't able to handle it." It was Kelly who removed the center study funds from the county budget even though O'Malley "disagreed with it" because "the center is the last chance to point prince George's County in a different direction."

The direction is to buildthe convention center, a 600-room hotel, a snopping and town center and win the race with the District of Columbia, which also wants to build a convention center.

O'Malley, perhaps the closest personal friend and political ally of State Senate President Steny H. Hoyer (D-Prince George's), said that this was "good business and good business leads towards good government (which) leads to good politics."

O'Malley was praised for his candor. Robert S. Redding, a member of the all-Democratic county delegation, said that as long as "everything was out in the open and the country would benefit, I'm comfortable with the project . . . especially since it will bring in the, 500 new jobs."

The project is somewhat unique. The state will receive no guarantee of any repayment and will have no role in reviewing the contracts let out for construction even though it will provide $20 million to build the center.

It is an all-or-nothing proposal that may not be submitted again next year, O'Malley said.

The $20 million will be the first money spent ot build the convention hall. Then William Levitt Jr., the developer for the project who retains O-Malley as his attorney, will put up the remaining funds of at least $13 million to finish the construction project. He will use his state backing to help with the financing.

The George Hyman Construction Company already has been chosen because the firm was willing to prepare the plans without being paid and because it is large enough to receive a performance bond - financial guarantee to finish the project - from a bank, O'Malley said.