Marvin Kalb, CBS News...the United States Senate?

Maryland politicians are asking that question incredulously, not because the television diplomatic correspondent might get a change in assignments, but because he is considering a change in professions.

Kalb has been traveling around the state sounding out politicians and fund-raisers about the possibility of running as a Democrat against Maryland's popular Republican senator, Charles McC. Mathias, Jr.

"I've been watching government for a couple of years now," said the veteran State Department reporter, "and the thought of being on the inside is clearly exhilarating."

Kalb, 49, who last held elective office in college, and as high school class president, said he will continue to explore his political future for the next few months before making a decision.

"I never rush into any decision," he said. "It's not in the nature of my bloodstream."

After more than two decades on the sidelines, Kalb said, he is considering entering politics because "I am concerned about the perpetuation of Democratic values in a society under extravagant economic and political pressure."

In recent weeks, Kalb, who lives in Chevy Chase, has spoken at length to Democratic money raisers in Montgomery County, visited Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) in her congressional office and traveled to Baltimore County to discuss his prospects with County Executive Donald Hutchinson.

He also paid a visit a month ago to Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, who asked the well-traveled correspondent if he knew how to get to Baltimore for a meeting in Sachs' office.

"He said he'd been here [Baltimore] once or twice," the attorney general recalled. "I said I could understand, we don't have too many summit conferences here."

Asked in an interview if he often gets to Baltimore, the political center of Maryland, Kalb replied:

"Of course, soft-shell crabs."

"If the question is, "Is this a guy who knows a lot about Maryland politics, the answer is no."" said the foreign affairs specialist. "If the question is, "Is this a guy who knows nothing about Maryland politics," the answer is no.

"I think I know a lot more than nothing. I've been following [Maryland politics] for years."

Kalb, a scholarly man who has written books on Russia, China, Vietnam and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, said he is a bit wary of the rough-and-tumble nature of Maryland politics - a hard-fought business that often features dirty tricks and insulting treatment of opposing candidates.

"I'm very sensitive," he confessed. "My wife tells me that. When my books come out, I only enjoy good reviews."

At CBS" Washington Bureau, some of Kalb's colleagues have been inventing facetious campaign slogans for a state where Gov. Mandel was convicted of political corruption charges.

A couple of suggestions: "Can Maryland Take Another Marvin?" and "One Marvin Is Enough."

"Somebody said just because he didn't get on the (Walter) Cronkite news program two times in a row, he wants to run for the U.S. Senate," joked correspondent Roger Mudd.

"We're all encouraging him to run," chuckled Mudd."If he leaves and the State Department assignment opens, a whole lot of guys are going to move up."

Kalb has yet to find much encouragement among the politicians he has courted. In frank terms, they tell him he would have grave difficulty in a Democratic primary facing opponents with longer political histories.

"I thought he'd be regarded as politically alien in this state," Sachs said. "His very national recognition and his television recognition is probably a minus.

"There's a carpet-bagger quality to it."

Other Maryland politicians were at least as blunt in interviews yesterday.

"Who the hell's Mark Kalb?" asked Baltimore political warlord Dominic Mimi DiPietro, mispronouncing the correspondent's first name. "I don't even know this guy. What is he?A news monger?"

Another Baltimore political chieftain, state Sen. Harry J. McGuirk, knows of Kalb from CBS Evening News, but predicts a low rating for him with Maryland voters.

"He's not even in the category of Walter Cronkite," McGuirk mused. "The question is whether he's the type of person who can get up fro the 5 a.m. shift at Bethlehem Steel [for a campaign stop.]"

Kalb concedes that his professorial, sophisticated television style is not a natural political advantage, but he believes he can quickly gain the common touch with voters.

"My father was a tailor and an immigrant from Poland," he said. "Bernie [his brother, who also is a CBS correspondent] and I and my sister were raised in a home where we understood the need of working three jobs to survive.

"I feel no problem about communicating with working people. I think of them as my father was."

Nor does he believe his star status on national television news will work against him. "I really don't consider myself a celebrity," he said. "People are going to see me, not a face on the tube. They're going to have to deal with me, not an image."

Kalb declined to discuss a possible campaign strategy, the amount of money he would need in a statewide race, his current backers or his differences with Mathias - all questions, he said, that "carry me way beyond the reality of the situation now."

The matter of money was raised, however, in his meeting with Mikulski, who also is considering the Senate race, according to one of the Baltimore congresswoman's aides, Ann Lewis.

"Barbara said how much do you think it's going to take," the aide said.

"He [Kalb] said he thought about a million," Lewis continued.

"Then, Barbara said, "Does that include a primary against me?"

"She said there was absolute silence."

Kalb denied that talk of money came up in the conversation. Mikulski could not be reached.

Kalb said he first began considering the race last spring when several "prominent members of the Democratic party came to me and asked me to consider running. People don't come to you everyday and make an offer like that."

Kalb said he plans to take a leave of absence from CBS for several months to complete a novel and ponder his political options.

"Things may just fall down, like the Yankees," said the Manhattan native. "If they do, I'll be happy to stay with CBS." CAPTION: Picture, no caption, The Washington Post