Lillian Bass's knuckles were white as she clutched a manila folder containing her husband Tom's resumes. Twenty feet away, Hyattsville Mayor Tom Bass was asking the Prince George's County Democratic Central Committee to back him as successor to County Council member Francis Francois, who is quitting Sept. 5.

Lillian Bass was nervous even though she and her husband both knew the youthful mayor has no chance of winning appointment to Francois' seat on the 11-member council. Long before last week's central committee hearing on the Francois vacancy, the word had gone out among county Democrats that the successor must be a party loyalist who, like Francois, comes from the Bowie area. That qualification excluded Bass.

"We both realize that Tom has no chance this time," said Lillian. "We're getting ready for 1982 (when the next county elections will be held)."

While Bass came to last week's meeting knowing he did not stand a chance of being selected -- but hoping to increase his ability to bargain for a spot in 1982 -- dozens of other Democrats came feeling certain that they had a shot at the council seat.

Among the dozen who offered themselves to the central committee for the $24,000 post were school board member Al Golato, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission member Johanna Norris, former Bowie Mayor William Wildman and Board of Elections member Mickey Devaney.

Others attended but were more reticent about putting forward their names. Former Police Chief John Rhoads said he forgot his resume and had come to check out the competition; Prince George's Del. Gerard Devlin said he was attending simply "to watch democracy in action," and Del. Charles (Buzzy) Ryan said he had come to speak for another interested candidate and was not a candidate himself.

Despite the usual soporific political speeches, last week's meeting was notable for one specific reason: It indicated just how complete is the disarray into which the Democratic Party, a once well-controlled organization, has fallen since the 1978 elections. Those elections saw the defeat of Democrats Winfield Kelly in the county executive's race and of Steny Hoyer for lieutenant governor.

Those two, and longtime Democratic strategist Peter O'Malley, in the past had directed the party through major political decisions such as the selection of a new council member. With all three retired, at least temporarily, from county politics and other county Democrats apparently unwilling to take their places, the party, all agree, has been floundering. Its troops seem unable to work together or to combat effectively the strength and well-orchestrated political maneuvers of the county's only Republican official, County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan.

As one Democratic insider put it, "The tribes are wandering in the desert. This is how it has to be. Finally they'll get thirsty and want to come back and set up the kingdom again."

All this was quite apparent in the effort to find a replacement for Francois. Nearly a month after the Bowie Democrat made his surprise decision to quit county politics, the only development in selecting his successor has been the one public hearing last week and the quiet elimination by Democratic insiders of various prospective candidates.

Golato, initially considered a frontrunner, and Norris both have been unofficially removed from the competition. The appointment of either would create a vacancy in an influential county agency that then would be left to Hogan, as county executive, to fill. Fearful that the county executive is attempting even now to form a slate against them for the 1982 elections, the Democrats are not willing to concede Hogan any more appointments than are currently available to him.

Rhoads' prospects have dimmed because of his apparent unwillingness to give up the $29,000 disability pension he receives from the county. Council members have said it would be politically unacceptable to appoint Rhoads to the $24,000 job while he was receiving the medical pension.

Bass, New Carrolton Mayor Jordan Harding and nearly half of the other candidates who spoke up at last week's meeting are considered unlikely choices because they do not live in the Bowie area.

While various candidates have been eliminated in the last few weeks, the number of interested persons is likely to grow before the central committee's second public hearing in August.

It is at that point the Democrats will try to come together and, if they are successful, a consensus will emerge on three names the central committee will forward to the council for a final selection. Said one county Democrat, "That's when we'll know if any movers and shakers still exist in the party."