The short man with the salt-and-pepper hair was standing almost by himself at a telephone booth outside the supermarket in Wheaton Plaza.

There was something vaguely familiar about the man, who was otherwise unnoted by occasional passersby.

Theodore G. Venetoulis and his campaign had come to Washington's Maryland suburbs.

On his home turf of Baltimore County, they call Venetoulis "TV Teddy." As country executive, his jurisdiction stretches from Baltimore City to Pennsylvania. Up there, he's a newsmaker, constantly parading before the viewers and making headlines, like any good hometown politician.

But when Venetoulis and the two other Baltimore-based candidates in the four-way Democratic gubernatorial race come to the Washington suburbs, it is a different story.

In Wheaton Plaza last Thursday, Venetoulis held what was billed as a press conference to attack Acting Gov. Blair Lee III's first year in office as a "continuation of the old sordid system of Maryland politics . . ." The event was staged in the middle of the Wheaton Plaza parking lot where Venetoulis stood at a wooden podium flanked by two oaktag charts reviewing Lee's record during 1977 and 1978.

Present were Channel 9 and this reporter. Another Washington television station had promised coverage but was not there and the candidate - who had driven down from Baltimore for the event - had only a few minutes to spare. So on went the show. And then off again he went to Baltimore. There were no crowds to hold him back.

The event lasted perhaps five minutes or so, and netted a brief spot on the one station's 6 p.m. news. Which is more than other Baltimore-based candidates have gotten, according to campaign aides.

Mike Kanning, an aide to candidate Harry Hughes, recalls a Montgomery forum attended by all four Democratic contenders. When it was over, he said, television crews zeroed in on Blair Lee, of Silver Spring, and his Prince George's County running mate, Steny Hoyer.

"They ignored everyone else," Kanning recalled. "They said, 'We're looking for a Washington angle,' It's symbolic of the kind of thing we've had to deal with in the past." Kanning said there has been "a shift" since the Baltimore Sunpapers endorsed Hughes, former state transportation secretary, in a three-part editorial series.

The Sunpapers endorsement, viewed as significant by campaign watchers in Baltimore, did not make big news here, however. The Washington Post, for example, carried the story inside its Metro section.

Baltimore City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky is also used to getting the kind of regular coverage in Baltimore papers, radio and television he does not enjoy here. "As City Council president, when there are City Council meetings, he is covered," said Linda Katz, a fulltime Orlinsky-for-governor volunteer in Montgomery County.

But Katz's complaints go further. "It seems like almost every night the Baltimore stations have something on the gubernatorial race," she said. In the Washington area, she said, there are "long lapses."

Campaign coverage here has, in fact, been more thematic than hard-news oriented, thus producing fewer daily stories. But campaign aides for the Baltimore-based candidates complain also about what they say is the failure of the Washington area media to cover state issues.

What's an issue in Baltimore, however, is not always an issue in Maryland's Washington area suburbs. For example, a task force report predicting severe economic distress for Baltimore in the near future got front-page coverage in that city's papers, but no mention here where the suburban economy is cushioned by the area's dominant federal payroll.

"Let's face it," says Ray White, a former television editorial director here who is working for Venetoulis, "you've got two population centers. Baltimore City is big, heavy, blue collar. Jobs are a very big thing there."

Moreover, Ray notes, reporters and editors here, by their very location, have different demands on their times and space. "Local politics to them is not Maryland politics but Maryland, the District and Virginia, and they have to divide it all up and treat everything equally. And this year, there's politics going on in all three."