The vows have been made, the political marriages consummated. Now is the time for The Political Endorsement in Maryland's increasingly heated gubernatorial primary race.

A political endorsement used to have more practical meaning than it does today. When real political bosses were in vogue, "the nod" by the right man meant thousands of votes.

"When the guy (boss) nodded his head," recalls former Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro, III, "that meant the district. If the organization didn't take you, you could forget it."

Today, political strategists talk about an endorsement in symbolic terms. A few good words by a politcal leader gives a candidate "momentum" and creates a "bandwagon" effect.

Even if an endorsement doesn't always translate into votes today, it can lend credibility to a candidate, legitimizing his campaign in the eyes of campaign donors and opinion makers.

"You start looking stronger, more like a winner, which makes other things fall into place," explained Frank A. DeFilippo, who is a media consultant for Acting Gov. Blair Lee III.

For an incumbent governor, endorsements are crucial. It would be extremely embarrassing if Lee failed to win support from General Assembly members who have seen in action over the years.

Lee tried last week to capitalize on an endorsement from three state legislators from Northwest Baltimore when he invited them to the front steps of the State House to pose for pictures.

The three lawmakers may not control votes in their district, Lee informed reporters, but the backing of the three city-based legislators helps defuse charges that he is not interested in Baltimore.

When two black political organizations from West Baltimore gave Lee the nod last week, their endorsements were touted by his staff as proof of the acting governor's commitment to blacks.

Jackie Smelkinson, who manages the gubernatorial campaign of Baltimore County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis, said endorsements "add to the general psychological impact" of a campaign.

When Venetoulis received the backing of a powerful South Baltimore political leader earlier this month, according to Smelkinson, "the message was aimed at the opinion makers."

"Cynical as they might have been about (South Baltimore Delegate Paul Weisengoff's) motives," she said, "they had to be asking if Paul Weisengoff is backing Venetoulis, he may be a winner."

The practical significance of an endorsement varies according to the political camp. The general rule is simple: The blessing of a political leader is important, if you have it.

"The Lee ticket . . . will certainly win the (endorsement) game on the basis of who gets the most," said Smelkinson. "Our strategy is to show momentum through activity in the streets."

When Attorney General Francis (Bill) Burch realized he would not draw many political endorsements for his gubernatorial drive, he decided to denounce the whole process as outdated political bossism.

Standing in front of an aging political clubhouse in Baltimore, Burch was appealing to a larger constituency when he warned politicians, "I don't want your support if it means patronage and deals."

The political clubhouse was once ruled by one of Baltimore's premier political bosses, the later Jack Pollack, whose endorsement years ago all but guaranteed a larged bloc of Jewish votes.

Today, very few political leaders can assure votes, except in the black community. The three Jewish legislators from Northwest Baltimore who endorsed Lee last week made it clear they only represented themselves.

The gradual disappearance of the proverbial boss in Maryland politics and the general demise of political machines has given new importance to the endorsements of pressure groups.

More time was spent cultivating the Maryland State Teachers Association this year - its endorsement went to Venetoulis last month - than courting various political bosses in Baltimore.

The teachers group offers a candidate a large field army of volunteers to augment the campaign organization from the precinct level up. The teachers and their union also contribute campaign funds.

The next battle for endorsements will take place in July when labor decides who to support. Unions can also help a candidate with volunteer forces and campaign contributions.

But there are candidates, like Burch, who generally eschew endorsements. Not only did he insult political leaders, he was harshly critical of teachers at their nominating convention.

Burch feels he can circumvent political leaders by appealing directly to voters through the mass media. For Burch, the most important "machine" is the one with dials and a 24-inch screen.

In the view of some old-style political leaders, Burch may have the right idea. "TV is the political boss today," said D'Alesandro. "It establishes direct communication between the voter and the candidate."