Day after day this fall, Gov. Harry Hughes sat down behind the dark, polished desk in his stagehouse office, shielded from public, press, and his fellow politicians, and quietly lost himself in the project he believes could be his chief legacy as Maryland's governor, the test of his uniquely moderate style.

For hundreds of hours, while functions went unattended and aides worried about his fading public image, Hughes labored not on an innovative new approach to a social problem, or on a stirring new state of the state address, but on the nearly endless items of the state budget. State tax revenues had plunged, and for Hughes nothing could be more comfortable -- or seem more important -- than managing the fiscal problem.

This was the time for the governor to be a master in the even-tempered, pragmatic, almost introverted style he had built his career -- and election campaign -- on. And there he sat, personally judging such questions as whether the staff of the state's seafood marketing program should be cut from 10 to 4, despite compliants from fisherman.

"Sometimes, you'd go in to see him, and it was kind of disconcerting, because you would feel like you were feeding your information into a computer," said one close aide. "Hughes would just sit there, not saying anything, and at the end he would say, 'o.k.' and you would walk out not knowing whether anything had registered. And then two weeks later you'd get a note from him saying what he had decided."

On Christmas Eve, the work of writing a new $5 billion-plus budget was finished, and this week that distinctive style of focused management will begin to earn a potentially crucial judgment. On Wednesday, Hughes begins the process of presenting, defendin and supplementing his long budget work before the legislature, which by law can only reduce appropriations, not restore what Hughes has chosen to cut.

When it is over, both the General Assembly and the public should know whether their tall, quiet governor can be what he has always promised to be, an intelligent and effective fiscal manager, without being on overpowering leader.

For by now, Hughes' personal temperament and style have redefined the role of the governor in a state accustomed to high-profiled, strong-willed executives. His administration has been measured, in many ways, by the traditional practices and perogatives it has sworn off or quietly abandoned. But after his election in the wake of the scandal-racked administration of former governor Marvin Mandel, Hughes has yet to demonstrate that his management-oriented and frequently consensus-motivated style really amounts to the proper definition of his job.

Hughes entered office pledged to end its tradition of corruption, political patronage and legislative power-broking, and he has, in fact, abruptly halted the parade of headlines that attributed almost every kind of official abuse to the state's last two elected governors, Mandel and former vice president Spiro Agnew. He has delivered on his tax-cut promises, and, for the most part, on the few other program pledges he made to the citizens.

But, two years after he delivered his inaugural address, Hughes is faced with the nagging criticism that, in all his integrity and pragmatic straightforwardness, he is simply not doing or saying enough.

Hughes promised not to improperly interfere with the legislature, but critics say he has been so carefull not to twist arms during the General Assembly session that he is sometimes unnecessarily ineffective.

After defeating -- and disowning -- the state's old-line Democratic organization, Hughes now stands accused of weakening the party by making few efforts of his own to guide it.

After pledging to conduct an "independent" administration that would stick to its priorities despite political pressures, Hughes has been portrayed as backing down from several of his more controversial programs in his zeal to compromise with the legislature.

And Hughes, whose own image of integrity was bolstered by his resignation from Mandel's cabinet because of that governor's alleged attempts to manipulate his business, now gives his own subordinates, and whole departments, such free rein that his critics for seeming to do little to direct them.

In part these complaints have reflected the disgruntlement of the state's old establishment with its governor's new philosophy. But something at the root of the criticism -- the question of leadership -- has become a haunting issue for the governor and his staff.

In Hughes' view, he has been unfairly criticized for failing to exert leadership simply because he has not sought headlines. "I'm not flamboyant, I'm not comfortable with tooting my own horn," he said in a recent interview. "That's not me and I guess I can't change."

And Hughes believes that he simply has a different philosophy of what a governor should do than his predecessors, one that reflects the modern disenchantment with government as a social initiator and the increasing factionalism in legislative politics. "Things have changed dramatically since I've been here [in state goverment]," he said. "It's not possible any more for one person or one faction to simply exercise control over the process.

"I think the governor's job, the primary function, is to manage. We've tried to improve the internal management of state government. It's not very glamorous, but it's necessary . . . And I really think people appreciate . . . that things are running calmly, smoothly, and there hasn't been a scandal, or even an innuendo of scandal."

In part, the governor's view is undeniable -- a variety of polls in the last six months have shown a majority of citizens, sometimes as much as 70 percent, regard his work as fair to good, and at present there is little talk in political circles of a serious challenger to Hughes in next year's Democratic party.

And in my case, though they talk of improvements, those close to Hughes say that his fundamental style, and any questions of leadership that follow it, are unlikely to change.

Aside from his philosophy, Hughes, they say, is simply incapable of excerising either the pomp and glamour or the authoritian style available to his office. Instead, he remains more the self-effacing committee chairman he was as a state senator from the Eastern Shore, sticking to his deck, soliciting all views, analyzing issues methodically, and retaining what one aide called "his great poker face."

"Harry's a student of government," said his friend and former campaign advertising manager, Hal Donofrio. "He doesn't want to be put on a pedestal, and he's careful about taking a position that is somewhere short of his final decision. He doesn't believe in mystique and makes no attempt to surround himself with it.

"And I think the frustration for some people is that there is no mystery there, no intrigue. You can sneak into his office and look behind his chair, but there's nothing there. You can open his closet and you'll find nothing but button-down shirts and rumpled sweaters."

Hughes' style has indeed caused him image problems, at the least. "The thing that's the problem is the perception of his doing well -- because he doesn't seem forceful enough, he doesn't make decisions as clearly," says Donofrio.

The effect has been evident recently in the civic meetings Hughes attends, when he will ask for a show of recognition on his massive tax-reduction program of two years ago and not a single hand will rise. It is there when he meets with business leaders, who tell him, tactfully, that he needs to "communicate" better. And most frustrating of all, the problem has surfaced repeatedly in the press, which has described Hughes as aloof, or timid, or at worst, as a do-nothing governor.

Hughes' aides often blame the latter criticisms on the regular Annapolis reporters, who, they say, slam Hughes for his outward lack of color while ignoring his substantive record. But they acknowledge, too, that the governor's personal qualities have often shaped his press conferences, his most frequent form of exposure.

"The thing about him is that if he doesn't know something, he simply says, 'I don't know,' and of course the newspaper are aghast at that," said Lo Bowen, Hughes former colleague at the Balitmore law firm of Miles and Stockbridge. "Most politicians will make some kind of Delphic statement that you can draw anything out of."

Moreover, unlike some of his predecessors, Hughes will frequently arrive for these weekly sessions without anything to announce, attack or praise, and he has a manner of announcing that he is working on a program, or thinking about his position on an issue, then delaying for weeks his final decision as he meticulously gathers material and guages public and legislative reaction.

The result is that for weeks Hughes' office is dominated by an atmosphere of indecision, or indecisiveness, as reporters press him for answers and he serves up ever more contorted responses leaving him uncommitted.

During his first legislative session, for example, a weekly topic for questions and answers became Hughes' position on the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment, or lack of a position on it. On Jan. 18, Hughes was asked for his position and he responded that he had no decided yet.

Pressed further, Hughes finally admitted he was "leaning against it, but reserving the right to lean back the other way."

On Jan. 25, Hughes was again asked about the issue, and he said that he had still not made up his mind, though he was still "leaning."

Feb. 1: D.C. Voting Rights was raised again. "Well, I indicated last week that I would have something to say about it in a week or so and we are in the 'so' period right now, Hughes said. "Every time I lean either way, there is an interpretation that I have fallen over that way, so right now I am standing straight, not leaning."

Feb. 8: "Governor," came the question, "as you know, one matter being debated now in Maryland Senate is the question of D.C. voting representation," said a reporter.

"I have heard that," said Hughes.

"On the floor a few days ago there was a comment by one of the Senators, wondering what your position now is on that," the reporter added.

"I will have a statement to make on that at the next press conference. I have put a deadline on myself now," said Hughes.

"When is the next press conference?"

"May 23," said Hughes.

Finally, on Feb. 15, Hughes announced his support for the amendment, but not before he had been accused of being wishy-washy, of failing to lead. And over the last two years, this scenario has been repeated on a number of major issues, from financing for the Washington Metro system to tax policy to Hughes' present public uncertainty over whether to cut back air to local subdivisions in an effort to cover programs he has said are missing from his new budget.

Hughes' supporters contend that the weeks of delayed commitments at press conferences simply reflect the governor's straightforward approach to government, his desire to thoroughly anlayze an issue, including a sort of public hearing on it, before he makes a decision. "He can sit there and send out trial balloons, and if he finds out that is not what the people want, he goes in another direction," said Jud Garrett, his former legislative officer.

Frequently, those "people" Hughes waits for are the state legislative leaders. In fact, many of the administration's most important accomplishments have been realized through a process of collaboration and consensus with the legislative leadership, a technique that has stolen controversy from the last two General Assembly sessions.

In 1979, Hughes ended up negotiating the specifics of his massive tax package with legislative leaders who wanted to target relief less to moderate- and low-income families and more toward the middle class. The result was a proposal shifted slightly from Hughes' priorities, but one that was easily enacted and that will save citizens, Hughes now estimates, a total of $540 million over the course of his four-year term.

Last year, Hughes also worked closely with legislative leaders in shaping a state mass transportation package that contained a critical commitment to Washington Metro funding, and a state education program that contained huge and much-heralded increases in aid to schools. Both were easily enacted.

Hughes also introduced a comprehensive package to deal with the most volatile problem of his administration -- overcrowding and inadequate facilities in state prisons -- and it was in this area that he made his largest compromise.

Hughes had begun his term by hiring a flamboyant chief of corrections, Gordon Kamka, and endorsing his progressive policy of solving the prisons' problems by focusing on community correction centers rather than maximum-security facilities and relaxing some parole requirements. The governor's stance was widely interpreted as meaning he favored no new large prisons for the state.

Then last year, under pressure from conservative legislators demanding more traditional prisons, Hughes announced his support first for one, then two new facilities, including a 500-bed, maximum security institution in Baltimore. The result: a comprehensive prison package, including the community correction centers that Kamka had stressed, passed the legislature easily, but social advocacy groups who once had nothing but praise for Hughes accused him, in effect, of selling out.

"He's catering to a great deal of pressure from the state legislature, and a public perception of the need, rather than saying, 'we're going to do what's right,' rather than educating," said Richard Seligman, a lawyer involved in the ongoing court case over state prison overcrowding. "It's a classic case of trying to straddle the fence."

Outwardly, of course, legislative leaders have nothing but praise for the way Hughes has worked on the major issues. But many of those same legislative leaders often say themselves that Hughes sometimes, as he collects their views on an issue, simply does not make it clear what he wants. "Last year, we had Friday meetings of the governor and the leadership during the session," said one senator. "I remember we all walked out of there and looked at each other and said 'What did he want from us?' Nobody knew what he wanted. He throws things out at you, but he won't make it clear what he wants you to do."

Hughes draws similar comments from those outside government monitoring his social programs, appointments and departments. While health and social services advocates praise the governor for increasing welfare benefits more than any previous governor, they wonder why he has not defended his progressive programs more vociferously. Minority groups say they appreciate Hughes' record of appointing more blacks and females to state boards and commissions -- almost 15 percent of his appointees have been black and 29 percent have been women -- but they wonder why Hughes' administration rarely seems to touch base with them.

Recently, many of these criticisms of inadequate communication or direction have shifted from Hughes' legislative polciy to his management of the state departments that actually implement the state programs. For Hughes often seems to work with his cabinet chiefs in the same way he does with those outside the administration -- like a committee chairman who listens carefully, evaluates, and manages, but sometimes seems to keep his own views to himself.

Several of Hughes' department heads say that they rarely hear from the governor unless they contact him; he seems to believe that it is strictly their job to bring problems to his attention. When a policy or a program is not brought before him, they say, he rarely intervenes.

Kamka and other department heads praise Hughes for respecting their expertise and letting them manage their day-to-day affairs. But the result of this kind of management style, some critics say, has been a lack of overall direction in several departments, like transportation, where legislators now feel the need to establish their own oversight committee to reorganize the department's policy and set priorities.

Hughes reponds that he has, in fact, tried to redirect and reorganize major areas, like road-building policy, in the transportation department and in other departments. And in at least one area, economic development, Hughes has undeniably been agressive and outspoken. Since taking office, Hughes has not only doubled budgets in state programs for tourism and business development, but has taken highly-publicized trips to China and Southern California in search of new industry for the state.

The governor has also personally crusaded for programs sought by the state's business establishment, like the dredging of Baltimore's harbor and the comprehensive state hazardous waste siting program enacted last year now hailed as a model by the dozens of industries in the state who produce such waste.

But these programs, Hughes' aides note, are usually relatively uncontroversial in Maryland; economic development is perhaps one area where the sentiment is almost unanimous on what should have been done, where there is little need to consult, to build and manage a consensus.

That, legislative leaders and Hughes' own aides say, is why this year will be so important. In the past, Hughes has been a leader most in areas where few disagree with him. Andon major state issues where there is controversy, Hughes' style has worked only in two years where there have been huge state surpluses, when there has been so much money that all sides -- business and human services, moderate income and upper middle class -- could be satisfied.

This year, under the heat of special-interest groups and with comprehensive power over what is in the budget, Hughes has worked long hours setting the fiscal priorities largely on his own. There has been little widespread concensus to guide him. And the crisis comes in the area that he himself has defined as the most important work of the governor: the management of state resources.

"Live within its means -- that is what this administration has pledged to do," says Ejner Johnson, Hughes' top aide. "And good management in this case has been a painful process. but the decisions have been made. The actions have been taken to react to the crisis. Now, we have the job of convincing people that what we did was right."