Blair Lee III remembers reading a biography of American political dynasties a few years ago and coming to a chapter on his own famous family. The modern-day Lees were described in the book as a "respectable group" but in no way comparable to their powerful ancestors.

"It [the chapter on the Lee family] made me damn irritated," recalled Lee, Maryland's acting governor who is running for his own term. 'The idea was that the Lees had disappeared off the scene or gone off to sea. I would enjoy turning (the author) around on that, I know we haven't gone to seed."

Lee has enjoyed more than a respectable career in the last 30 years of Maryland politics as a hard-working planner for Montgomery County, a respected member of the state legislature, the state's first lieutenant governor and, for the past 14 months, its acting governor.

But he has never come very close to the loftier positions attained by his famous forebears until now, at the age of 62. This gubernatorial race offers Lee perhaps his last chance to reach the top and take his place in the history books alongside family members who led the nation and state for more than 300 years.

"His main motivation in life is heritage," said the acting governor's son, Blair Lee IV. "He'll recall how his grandfather put him to bed at night and told him stories about his family and when they met with Lincoln.You might say Dad is in communication with his ancestors."

Seeking the highest elected office in Maryland is in many ways a natural extension of family ideals for the elder Lee, who was taught at an early age that "politics is the family's business in the good sense" and government service of the highest calling for gifted men.

He could not have escape the lesson of noblesse oblige as the son of Col. E. Brooke Lee, a dominant force in local and state politics for decades, and the grandson of Blair Lee, Maryland's first elected U.S. senator. Two of their ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence.

But in other ways the campaign represents a reaffirmation of the family's longstanding values and goals.It has served as a vehicle for reuniting three generations of Lees and resolving many of the tensions that split father from son and grandson from grandfather five years ago.

Back in 1973, while serving his first term as lieutenant governor, Lee admitted going through a "period of massive disillousionment." He was deeply troubled by Spiro T. Agnew's downfall, Watergate and news stories hinting at, but never proving improprieties on his own part.

His political uneasiness coincided with a number of family crises, including the suicide of one of his seven sons. Another son who was arrested for peddling marijuana was acquitted on technical grounds. Other sons dropped out of school and were leaving home to seek alternative life styles.

In an extraordinarily frank interview at the time, Lee confessed that he lacked "the kind of driving ambition to reach the top." He said he was considering getting "the hell out" of politics because of the growing public perception that "all politicans are crooks by definiton."

Five years later, Lee is seeking the governorship with unqualified ambition. He accepts the occasional political advice of his father, now 85 years old. He is surrounded by several of his sons who have joined the campaign to help their father achieve a goal they once rejected.

Blair Lee IV, who gave up a promising career in law and politics to eke out a living on a subsistence farm in Appalachia, was making his annual spring trip to his grandfather's farm in northern Montgomery County to pick up a few cows and a bull last year where he stopped at a fund-raiser for his father and was asked to help in the campaign.

"There's a lot more here for me than a campaign," said the younger Lee, who serves as his father's deputy campaign manager in charge of sensitive money and media matters. "There's been some healing, some coming together. The family reflects the reconciliation that's happening in the country."

Colonel Lee, who calls the acting governor "the boy" and pitches in with campaign contributions, has made his peace with his grandchildren. For the elderly gentleman-farmer, who served in several high state posts in his era, the campaign also means more than an election.

"It's pleasant for the family to remain capable and eligible and honest and presentable," he said in an interview at his Damascus, Md., cattle farm. "I'm right proud of Blair.I'm proud of anybody who makes the first term. He's keeping up the family's good work."

Lee's blue bloodline and aristocratic bearing make him a special breed of politican in Maryland, an articulate, studious man who often seems more suited for the Foreign Service than Maryland's rough-and-tumble, Runyonesque political world centered on the political clubhouse and crab feast.

His courtly manner, moderate political views and sophisticated sense of humor made him a popular political figure with his suburban constituency in Montgomery County, who elected him twice to the state House of Delegates in 1954 and 1958 and once to the state Senate in 1966.

His origins came in handy again in 1969 when Marvin Mandel, a shrewd Jewish politican from Baltimore, was elected governor by the General Assembly to fill a vanancy and wanted a secretary of state who would give geographical and social balance to his new administration. He chose Lee.

In 1970, Lee ran on Mandel's ticket and became the state's first lieutenant governor as voters approved the institution of the new office through a constitutional amendment. Under Mandel, he served as a loyal administration lobbyist and spokesman who specialized in fiscal affairs, education, health and welfare.

Lee became acting governor last August after Mandel was convicted on political corruption charges and suspended from office. The full powers of the office had actually been transferred to him two months earlier after Mandel suffered an apparent stroke as his second corruption trial was beginning.

While he has generally remained loyal and sympathetic to Mandel and found state government jobs for most of Mandel's former aides, Lee has gingerly tried to disassociated himself from the convicted governor by criticizing him for lacking moral leadership and candor, which Lee considers vital in a government leader.

"I had a very good working relationship with Marvin," he said in an interview. "But it was essentially a 9 to 5 relationship. I was never one of the boys, the group invited over to the (governor's) mansion, or the boat. The inside group was the inside group and I wasn't part of it."

A product of St. Paul's preparatory school and Princeton University, Lee has displayed a mastery of the English language and a genial openness at his press conferences that contrasts greatly with Mandel's persistent secretiveness and tortured prose. Lee often parries with reporters and treats them to his self-depreciating humor.

He cavaleirly speaks out on controversial topics, earning the reputation of a "blueblood Harry Truman" while infuriating his political advisers with his offhand, depdecatory remarks about sometimes sensitive social and political groups. When the University of Maryland was considering bring a Marxist professor, he called the proposed move unwise.

Always wary of creating a backlash to his patrician image, he has tried to assume a homespun role, complaining that servants at the governor's Mansion launder his pajamas too often and trading in a $170-a-day luxury suite at the governor's conference in Detroit for a room one-third the price.

In private, Lee is sedate and withdrawn. He chain-smokes menthol cigarettes and flutters his eyelids rapidly while thinking of responses to questions. At lunch with his staff at his favorite French restaurant in Annapolis, the entire meal often goes by with few words exchanged.

"He's not the kind of guy Mark Russell (the comedian) tells stories about downtown," observed Shep Abell, who served as Lee's executive assistant for three years in the early 1970s. "That probably comes from so many nights curled up with the budget. He's not a very anecdotal guy."

True to his aristocratic groundings, Lee does not want to look too hungry for victory. Even the governor's race, he says, "is not life or death. It's nice to have your name listed in the Maryland Manual. But it's not an obsessive ambition for me."

Lee's low-key style, unwillingness to make a clean break with Mandel and his indifference to many political rituals - for instance he has resolutely avoided putting out position papers in this campaign - have inspired critics and political rivals to say he lacks the commitment, imagination and leadership qualities to hold the state's highest elective office.