Picture, for a moment, the ambiance of a television studio the night some doughty producer rounds up Maryland's 12 Democratic candidates for U.S. senator for a campaign debate.

"The voters will laugh us out of the state," moaned one state Democrat. "Every candidate will get two minutes to give their name and address, and the show will be over."

It is just that scenario troubling party officials here as the campaign for the May 13 Senate primary gets under way. Few in the party are looking forward to the inevitable scratching and clawing among the various candidates -- of whom at least four are prominent enough to have their own blocs of voter support.

And fewer still expect the fractious campaigning to produce a Democratic candidate who can challenge Republican incumbent Sen. Charles Mc.Mathias, perhaps the state's most popular elected official.

In retrospect, party leaders are saying that almost no amount of behind-the-scenes coaxing and orchestration could have produced a single Democratic Senate candidate this year with a strong chance of out-campaigning or out-spending Mathias, who reportedly has already raised well over $300,000 for his race.

Nevertheless, many Democratic officials here are saying that the party's elected leaders -- in particular, Gov. Harry Hughes -- helped to make the Senate campaign picture far bleaker for the Democrats by failing to exert their influence during the chaotic shuffling of potential candidates before the filing deadline last week.

"This is all going to reflect on Hughes in the end," said one state Democrat loyal to the more aggressive style of former governor Marvin Mandel. "If he had come out and actively gotten behind someone in the primary -- or found his own candidate to run -- a lot of people would have been scared off and we wouldn't have this mess."

During the weeks before the filing deadline, Hughes reportedly told two potentially strong Senate candidates -- state Senate President James Clark (D-Howard) and state Democratic Party chairman and Senate Majority Leader Rosalie Abrams, of Baltimore City -- that he would support them if they ran.

However, Hughes' encouragement was passive rather than aggressive, party officials say. He did not actively work to bring one of the two into the race, nor did he offer to use his influence as governor to help raise money for a Mathias challenger.

In the end, both decided to sit out the Senate race, mainly because of fears they could never collect enough funds or organized support to beat Mathias. And it was the absence of Clark and Abrams in the race that helped prompt many others to jump in, including Del. Dennis McCoy and Sen. Robert Douglass of Baltimore.

By deciding to run after a long weekend of indecision, McCoy at least prevented two other potential candidates -- Baltimore Del. Stephen Sklar and Baltimore City Council President Walter Orlinsky -- from filing. Orlinsky is now McCoy's campaign manager.

Nevertheless, neither McCoy nor the one announced candidate before the final filing day -- Montgomery Sen. Victor Crawford -- could prevent Prince George's state Sen. Edward Conroy from getting into the race.

"I don't feel bad about having 12 or 20 candidates," Conroy declared cheerfully this week. "The more the better, from my perspective."

Despite Conroy's assurances, many party leaders look at the myriad, more or less equally matched primary candidate with a sense of organizational failure.

They point to Mathias' last reelection race, in 1974, when former governor Mandel first nudged U.S. Rep. Barbara Mikulski into the race, then helped to see to it that most of the state party stood behind her.

Mikulski faced little opposition in the Democratic primary that year, and went on to run a creditable, if unsuccessful, general election race.

Although Hughes is once again being compared unfavorably with Mandel by state political operatives this week, party officials who wanted to see one strong candidate are not placing all the blame on the governor.

The state's other U.S. senator, Democrat Paul Sarbanes, had little influence in the candidate shuffling, they note, nor did Democratic Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs.

"These are people with strong constituencies and a lot of influence," one party leader said. "They could have organized something if they wanted, but they just did nothing. What it came down to in the end is that nobody thought they could raise enough money."