Acting Gov. Blair Lee III opened the current Maryland legislative session in January with an ambitious set of proposals in hand and a firm declaration: "I am an acting governor who intends to act."

By the second week of March having lost many of his major proposals, a less bullish Lee scaled down his expectations for the session. "I you'll give me the budget bill," he said at a press conference, "they can all go home tomorrow."

In the Maryland General Assembly where there is a long tradition of strong executive control passing the prosaic budget bill to fund state programs and jobs has been considered a minimum legislative accomplishment.

But Lee's reduced expectations, some influential legislators say, are realistic for an executive who has shown little mastery of the legislative process and failed to control events here.

"He doesn't seems to understand how to get things done." said Del. Paul E. Weisengoff, chairman of the Baltimore delegation in the House of Delegates. "He's the governor with all the cards and he doesn't know how to play them."

"He has shown me little or no leadership," said Sen. John C. Coolahan (D-Baltimore County), "He hasn't shown me any strength in guiding his proposals or presenting sound programs. Some of his programs are ridiculous."

This assessment from prominent legislators comes at a time when Lee hoped to demonstrate his executive skills and consolidate political support for his candidacy in this fall's gubernatorial election. Instead, for the first time in years, the legislature is running its own show. The major decisions are being made by the legislative leadership, not by the governor's office.

"This session was a golden opportunity to show direction, to show there is a steady hand at the rudder,"said a longtime Lee suporter in the Senate. "Blair seems to be letting most of its slip away."

Lee, on the other hand, says the shifting of power to the legislature should not be seen as a sign of weakness on his part. A good governor acts as a "mediator" who works with lawmakers and shares their legislative achievements, he said.

Even if his bills do not prevail this session, he added, he will have contributed to the final product. A productive session for the legislature makes his administration look good, he said, regardless of whose bills pass. Some legislators, relieved at being out from under the intense lobbying pressure characteristic of former Gov. Marvin Mandel, agree with Lee but many influential legislators do not.

Compounding the normal problems Lee would have faced in his first session has been the looming gubernatorial race and the ambitions for that office harbored by Senate President Steny H. Hoyer, who controls the upper chamber.

Lee has been outmaneuvered, some say undermined, on some issues by Hoyer, a strong challenger for Lee's office who political observers say is trying to use his position to enhance his candidacy.

"Steny's running for governor and he's going to take every shot he can to put egg on Blairps face," said a Lee adviser. "He's going to stick in the knife and go around the state saying Lee can't lead."

In the past two months Lee has had difficulty getting his way in the legislature. Many of his major proporals, which were unveiled with great fanfare, were given short shrift. Few of them are expected to pass.

He was forced to abandon key portions of his property and income tax package and accept an approach of legislative leaders that he had earlier threatened to veto. His highly touted ethics bill was derailed in committee.

He has angered several powerful legislators by shifting the site of a controversial state prison and publicly urging their support of a state pension bill that is bitterly opposed by politically influential teachers.

He is perceived by some lawmakers as a "loner" who adopts unworkable and politically unpalatable policies without first consulting with assembly leaders. He has a reputation for "flipflopping" on sensitive issues.

He has little control over legislative leaders and has failed to form a power base or coalition in either chamber. He can count on few lawmakers to support him even consistently his former colleagues in the Montgomery County delegation.

The perceptions of power in Annapolis have been shaped over the years by the long procession of strong governors who used the levers of their office to turn the legislature into a "rubber stamp" for administration proposals.

"I don't have the preoccupation with executive power," Lee said this week. "It's just not healthy. I'm not operating (the session) like a boxing match. I'd like to keep a nice even level where we all reason together."

The pressures of the session have taken their tool - the governor appears tired and there is strain in his voice. The usually jocular Lee gets testy when asked certain questions and shows little tolerance for criticism of his performance.

From the start, this session posed as much peril as promise for Lee. As "the new boy on the block," as he called it, he was open to the usual probing and testing by lawmakers trying to see how far he would bend.

As the end-of-term replacement for suspended governor Mandel, who was convicted of political corruption charges last summer, he faces a legislature that Mandel had ruled with military precision, racking up impressive accomplishments and keeping lawmakers and legislative leaders in line with an effective mixture of power politics and the art of compromise.

Lee served as Mandel's lieutenant governor for seven years but has not inherited his support here. Mandel built a large personal following among lawmakers through close friendships, patronage doles and campaign assistance.

But Mandel is gone, and the legislators have shown a new independence typified perhaps by Hoyer, a Prince George's County Democrat. While publicly proclaiming no interest in political one-upsmanship at the session, he is said to have worked behind the scenes to upstage Lee and generally make his job more difficult.

It was Hoyer's marshaling of Senate support for the leadership's tax credit program that helped force Lee to give up most of his tax package, notably his coveted proposal to liberalize the standard deduction on state income taxes.

Hoyer preempted the ethics issue from Lee by introducing his own bill with a majority of the Senate as co-sponsors. He assigned both bills to a committee, which killed the Lee bill and passed an amended Hoyer bill.

Hoyer has aggravated Lee's politically volatile prison problem by supporting a move to stop construction of a prison in East Baltimore while indicating he opposes an alternative city site proposed by Lee.

By backing the so-called "no-prison solution," Hoyer both makes matters difficult for Lee, who is committed to a new prison somewhere, and attracts support for himself from politicians in the areas surrounding both sites.

Hoyer denies trying to undercut Lee, but adds, "The acting governor is in a position of showing he's an effective leader. If his people are saying Steny Hoyer should join him, I think that's an unrealistic expectation.

Joining Lee as a partner in legislation was never a real option anyway, Hoyer maintains. Instead of trying to reach a consensus with legislative leaders before making a decision, he said, Lee tends to act by himself.

Lee's practice of acting without first seeking counsel with the leaders explains many of his problems this session, legislators say. He promoted policies without making sure they would fly.

"Blair gets an idea and lets it out before he pulses the people affected by it and gets a reading of the political implications," said House Speaker John Hanson Briscoe. "That's doing it the hard way."

Lee has few hard votes he can count on, Briscoe said. "What support he gets for a proposal will be mainly on the merits. I can't identify and individual or group of individuals who he can put him arm on and say, 'Okay, here's what I want. Go down and get me the votes."

He gets little lobbying help from his staff, legislators say. Except for the highly regarded Maurice Wyatt, the lone survivor of Mandel's team, the Lee crew is inexperienced and said to lack political savvy.

The soft-sell style of Lee's lobbyists is a marked contrast to the arm-twisting, vote-trading tactics of Mandel's legendary lobbying team, which was called "The Roadrunners" and "The Corporation."

But even if Lee leaves the session next month without a scorecard lined with legislative victories, his supporters here say, he will nevertheless get credit for helping to bring attention to the important issues.

"He's in the enviable position of getting credit for anything good that comes out of the General Assembly," said Sen. Harry J. McGuirk (D-Baltimore). "And it appears the leadership is moving smoothly in both houses."