It is too early, the candidate admits, to do much more than say. "Hi. How are ya? I hope you remember me later." But you start early in Maryland today if your name is Steny Hamilton Hoyer and your aim is to win the Democratic nomination for governor in September of 1978.

You start early for many reasons.

You live in the shadows of Washington, where politics is the sport for all seasons. You see 1978 as the first wide-open Democratic gubernatorial primary in more than a decade. You would hate to look back and say that you lost to Blair Lee III or ted Venetoulis or anyone else because he started earlier.

But you are well aware that fewer than 10 per cent of the Democratic voters recognize your name and even fewer know that you are president of the State Senate.

And you start early becuase this exmpaign is more than ambitious - seeking power. In a sense the Democratic Party of Prince George's County seeking acceptance, determined to show that it has overcome feelings of inferiority, that it has matured and is ready to stand on equal footing with Baltimore.

"Yes," says Marcia Krasnick, an official with the county's Democratic Central Committee. "We're so ready for this one we can't wait. We've had a lot of successful campaigns and we've been moving in this direction for years.

"Steny's campaign is like our coming out party. We're going to make people believe."

Steny Hoyer's party is coming at a time when most of the state is in a funeral mood. the conviction of Gov. Marvin Mandal on mail fraud and racketeering charges last week did noting to help the already sullied image of Maryland politics.

In an interview yesterday on WJLA-TV, Hoyer said he hoped that "every politician will take a lesson" from Mandel's conviction andn noted that Maryland officials will have "a real burden" to cleanse state government of political corruption. Like most other gubernatorial hopefuls, however, Hoyer stopped short of critcizing Mandel in an apparent attempt not to capitalize on the convicted governor's legal troubles.

In this early start, the Prince George's Democrats are vigorous in their efforts to make people believe. They want people to believe that they are not a "machine" and that their unofficial leader, attorney Peter O'Malley, is a brilliant political strategist, not a "boss."

They hammer the point home at every opportunity, rarely waiting for the cynic to note that the county is totally dominated by one party [not a single Republican can be found in the Prince George's legislative delegation or on the Couty Council] and that O'Malley is generally smack in the middle of the action.

They want people to believe that theirs is a unique from of coalition politics, one defined by Hoyer as "drawing the circule wide enough to let everyone in."

"If we can't convince people of that - particularly the opinion shapers in the press - we're in trouble from word go," says one of Hoyer's longtime associates. "Our whole thrust is reform and forming coalitions openly, letting anyone in on the process.

"We're running against the way politics has been in Maryland up through Mandel. It is very important that we be perceived as different, as a new generation."

That desire is especially fierce now, in these post-convicition days. It shows most clearly in the efforts of the Prince George's Democrats to carve out a new image for themselves.

The debate over whether Prince George's is dominated by a political machine or by Jeffersonian principles is one that O'Malley and Hoyer would like to win but probably never will.

"In the traditional sense of the word, this county does not have a machine. The old machine depends on committeemen who are basically service oriented. They are the guts of the operation, and what they do cannot just be done around election time."

The speaker is Thomas Hendershot, a man who grew up on the machine politics of Philadelphia. He spent several years working as an aide to U.S. Rep. William Gree (D-Pa.) before moving to Prince George's County.

"I don't see that kind of precinct-level organization here," Hendershot continues. "The Democrats in Prince George's know how to work with different factions and canvass for a given clection.

"But it was years after I moved into the county before I met my precinct chairman. In Philadelphia in the old days, they moved the furniture in for you."

Still, Hendershot maintains that Prince George's is an ideal breeding ground for a political machine. "I see the potential for it, if it isn't here yet," he says "And it frightens me." His reasoning:

A machine thrives on low voter turnout. It can always produce its own loyalists and thus control the elections when few other voters show up. Prince George's brings out less than 40 per cent of its registered Democratic voters in primaries.

A machine has difficulty with independent candidates who, with enough money, can create an image through extensive use of television. Prince George's is outside the dominant Baltimore television market and is often ignored in Washington.

"That makes for an isolated situation," notes Hendershot. "One that is easier to control."

Hendershot's mini-lecture came at a celebration of Hoyer's 38th birthday in the county's community college cafeteria. Thirty minutes later Steny Hoyer appeared on a makeshift podium at the center of the gathering. Peter O'Malley was at his side; scores of county politicians were behind him.

"We began many, many years ago," Hoyer said with the countenance of an ancient oral historian. "There were a few of us. But because we believed that in unity there is strength, we have come together. Not as a monolith, but as many minds working together."

The Monocle is a dark and cozy restaurant on the northeastern slope of Capitol Hill where lobbyists, lawyers and politicans do as the atmosphere suggests.They drink and dream; they laugh and reminisce; they say things that are mostly forgettable.

One night in early June, a few dozen men stood around a bar on the second floor of the Monocle to honor one of their own - Steny Hoyer. Gin and tonics were sipped, $100 checks written and many words said about the way things were 10 and 15 years ago.

"I doubt if any of us here give a damn about who the next governor of Maryland is," said one of the organizers of this select cocktail party. "But we do care about Steny. He's our boy. He's one of us. We all have a lot in common."

Fifteen years ago, Steny Hoyer was a student at Georgetown UNiversity Law School and an aide to U.S. Sen. Daniel B. Brewster (D-Md.). He had just finished a part-time stint as a night file clerk at the Central Intelligence Agency. And his friends traveled in the same circles between Georgetown and the Hill.

Peter O'Malley, Neil Gillen, Stu Ross and Tom Quinn worked as elevator operators and Capitol policemen. Spencer Oliver was on the staff of an Arizona senator. Tommy Boggs had a job with a congressional committee , through the graces of his influential father, the late Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.).

These young men were bursting with energy and looking for something to control. They joined the Young Democrats. They would often gather at a hotel suite in the old Congressional Hotel rented by Oliver's father, a labor organizer. There they plotted and in the old man's words, "drank up all my whiskey."

Their political activities moved to Prince George's County as much because of convenience as design. Hoyer had lived there since his last two years of high school. Several of the others - O'Malley, for instance - moved there during the law-school period. In 1964 O'Malley ran for president of the Young Democrats against one of the county natives, Perry O. Wilkinson.

"Those were the good old days, when it was all a lot of fun." The good old days would continue, with Hoyer becoming president of the Maryland Young Democrats, Oliver breaking through as president of the national Young Democrats and Hoyer reaching the Maryland Senate 11 years ago.

These old friends have all remained within reach of the Potomac, all continuing to gain power and prestige. But Hoyer and O'Malley - dubbed by one acquaintance as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside - are the only ones who have spent much of their time worrying about Maryland politics.

It's sad. In this, the most important campaign of their careers, the Prince George's County Democrats are finding out - to their chagrin - that the tactics that made them successful on the local level are of absolutely no use in a statewide race.

They used to like low voter turnouts. But in a statewide race, a low voter turnout in Prince George's puts Hoyer at an immediate disadvantage. In the 1974 Democratic primary, fewer than 30 per cent of Prince George's Democrats turned out - while turnouts in Montgomery County, Baltimore County and Baltimore City were far higher.

And, in the eyes of Hoyer's supporters, he doesn't get nearly his share of television time.

For kinstance, the Baltimore television stations put Baltimore County Executive Theodore Venetoulis - one of Hoyer's rivals in the race - on the air several times a week ["Every damn time he changes his socks," complains one Hoyer aide.].

At the same time, Hoyer is largely dependent on the Washington newspapers for most of his publicity, good or bad.

He says that the one thing that hurt him more than anything else in the early of the campaign was an article in The Washington Post that questioned his control of the Senate during the last legislative session.

"In a situation like that, it's hard not to be paranoid," says Hoyer. "It seemed to me that a reporter was sent up to Annapolis as a 'hit man,' with specific instructions to tell everyone how ineffective Steny Hoyer was.You guys can do a lot of damage in a very short time."

There has been some speculation since the legislature adjourned that Hoyer has already stopped running for governor - 15 months before the election. It has been said that he would settle now for a spot as lieutenant governor or attorney general on someone else's ticket.

"Could that be true?" Hoyer is asked.

"I don't have to work for a spot on anybody's ticket. If I wanted that kind of position, I could just sit home and wait for it. I would offer balance and strength to anyone's ticket."

The point is brough home by some of the functions Hoyer attends - such as the first annual awards banquet of the Baltimore County Law Officers Association. Would anyone travel 80 miles round trip for an event such as that merely in hope of moving from the presidency of the Maryland Senate to the lieutenant governorship?

Hoyer stands out in this crowd of police officers. His hair has a Kennedy cut.His suit is conservative. He has a laugh that echoes throughout the dining hall, beginning on an incredibly high note, then dropping an octave on the second syllable.

"Who is dat guy?" asks a 53-year-old maintenance man from Baltimore City who was given a free ticket to the affair and decided to go only because he was looking for a decent meal and a lawyer. "Teddy Kennedy?"

Hoyer actually started politics with John Kennedy as his inspiration. He keeps a copy of "The Quotable Mr. Kennedy" in the back seat of his Cordova. His basic speech, the one he will give to the policemen, is a simple variation on the late Presiden's "Ask Not" phrase.

It begins with Hoyer talking about a trip he and Judy took to Denmark last year. Judy noticed in Copenhagen that the streets were impeccably clean. When she asked a guide how that could be, the response was that the city had an ordinance requiring all homowners to clean up near their property.

Hoyer notes that in the United States, juvenile delinquents blame the governemnt for their problems, taxpayers who don't vote blame the government for their taxes, poor students blame school systems fo their failures. The audience is perfectly silent.

"We need to reinoculate the people of the United States with a feeling of personal responsinilty, a feeling that can be summed up in two-letter words: If it is to be, it is up to me. If we follow that idea, on the tricentennial of America, the streets will indeed be clean."

"That was pure Steny," said an almost envious politician from Baltimore County. "He may not be any smarter than the rest of us in Annapolis, but he can make people feel like he is - at least for a while. You gotta like a guy who can talk like that."