They buttonhole each other at political fund-raisers. They meet in Annapolis offices and Baltimore coffee shops. Their emissaries send out "feelers." The discussion usually turns on a key question "Why don't we get together?"

The candidates for statewide office in Maryland's Democratic primary election, their backers and managers have begun in the [WORD - ILLEGIBLE] mating game of forming tickets for the party's climination race still 11 months away.

While no one has teamed up as yet the courtship has been unusually active for such an early stage of the campaign. The goals are complex to eliminate a rival by joining with him: to penetrate an inaccessible constituency: to make the best deal available and to form the perfectly balanced dream ticket.

"Everyone is buzzing around now," said State Sen. Rosalie Abrams (D-Baltimore). "I've heard three rumours about myself in the last weeks. But everybody's waiting to see who's got the most nectar. Nobody wants to be a lieutenant governor on a losing ticket."

"I keep hearing all sorts of line-ups," said a campaign aide to Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis, who is one of the least seven gubernatorial candidates in a Democratic primary considered a wide open for the first time in a decade.

The gossip has its own special cadecce. "I hear Lee is talking to Hoyer and Hoyer is talking to Rosalie Abrams," said Philip Z. Altfeld, campaign manager for attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Francis B. Burch. "And I understood Lee has talked so Steve Sachs and Hoyer has spoken to him. We hear the possibility of Steny Hoyer with Schaefer. Burch as lieutenant governor with Lee. Ben Cardin with Lee or with Hoyer, Rosalie Abrams possibly with Lee," said a Venetoulis campaign officials.

Acting Gov. Blair Lee III has been the most active so far. He has invited Venetoulis, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, Baltimore Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski and State Sen. President Steny H. Hoyer to join a ticket headed by Lee, according to campaign sources. Hover and Schaefer are also gubernatorial rivals to Lee.

Burch. has made indirect overtures to Venetoulis and asked Hoyer whether he plans to go through with a race for governor, according to political insiders.

Hoyer's supporters, in turn, have courted Venetoulis aides and friends of Schaefer, Abrams, a Baltimore politicians, said one of Hoyer's backers recently asked her to consider running on a slate headed by the Senate president.

Hoyer, while waiting for the start of a patriotic parade in Baltimore last month, was overheard telling another gubernatorial candidate: "We all ought to get together in a room and have someone flip a coin to see who's going to run for governor."

The do-si-do of Democratic politics shows the fluid state of party affairs since criminal convictions toppled Gov. Marwin Mandel and Maryland's three premier campaign fund raisers - Irwing Kovens, W. Dale Hess and Harry W. Rodgers III, codefendants.

Several candidates have built impressive war chests and voter organizatitons. Some candidates hope to gain leverage in this crowded field by enticing their rivals to join their slates.

The game of pre-emption in Maryland politics has its own set of rules that are as important to its players as protocol is to the diplomatic corps.

A candidate rarely puts our "feelers" himself. Instead, he relies on campaign aides and go betweens to develop contacts. Sometimes, a candidate send several emissaries to court different members of another politician's clan.

If initial approaches turn out to be productive, top lieutenants meet to work out ground rules for a session between the two principals. At the final sessions, candidates hammer on patronge arrangements and campaing stategy.

During Lee's courtship of Venetoulis earlier this year, several of the acting governor's backers contacted Venetoulis, his aides and fund-raisers in an effort to set up a meeting for the two candidates, according to campaign sources.

While in Annapolis for other business, sources said, Venetoulis met with Lee in his office and discussed the campaign. It was during that conversation when Lee asked the Baltimore County executive to run as Lee's lieutenant governor.

"Every avenue in every possible way was explored," recalled a Venetoulis staff aide. "Virtually anyone close to Blair asked. People met Ted at lunch. They called him directly. There were suggestions that Blair would be a one-term governor."

Rep. Mikulski said she turned down Lee three times. "Number one was when someone asked me in (Lee's) behalf," she said. "I met him for coffee around the corner from (Baltimore) City Hall. Later, Blair asked me to take a second spot at an event. The third time, I ran into him at the Auberge de France (a restaurant) in Annapolis. We sat down and had a Bloody Mary and he said, 'Barbara, this is your last chance.'"

Not all overtures result in direct offers. For example, Peter. F. O'Malley, Hoyer's main campaign strategist, has met with several political figures who could enhance a Hoyer candidacy without inviting them to join.

In these early days, political strategists, like O'Malley, figure the angles like race track handicappers to put together the dream ticket that crosses ethnic, ideological and geographical lines.

"We want to know what kind of financing they can bring, what their media impact would be, what's their political clout and will they be compatible with our man," explained Philip Z. Altfeld, campaign manager for Attorney General Burch.

For Burch a well-financed candidate from a Baltimore, the ideal running mate would live outside the Baltimore area and have "reform" credentials to offset Burch's incumbent image. Altfeld said, naming Hoyer and House of Delegates Speaker John Henson Briscoe, of St. Mary's County, as examples.

Lee, on the other hand, who comes from patrician stock in Montgomery County, is said to need a popular Baltimore area poliiician with ethnic flair - a Venetoulis, a Mikulski or a Schaefer - to counter his blue-blood style and draw votes from blue-collar sections of Baltimore.

Three gubernatorial candidates - Venetoulis, Hoyer and Baltimore City Council President Walter Orlinsky - are said to be well organized but short on campaign funds and name recognition outside their home bases. All three are looking for running mates who can make more than regional candidates.

Former Maryland Transportation Secretary Harry R. Hughes, who is running for governors, lack money, name recognition and organization. State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, another gubernatorial aspirant, is well known in Mayrland, but has no organization or campaign war chest.