Steny Hoyer had carefully taken his place at the speakers' table on a recent candidates night when up from the audience jumped Richard E. Lee, a perennial candidate who this night was sporting a T-shirt with his photograph and name emblazoned on it and dozens of his own campaign buttons.

"Hello you old carpetbagger you," said Lee, as he shook Hoyer's hand before moving on to another candidate in this overcrowded race tofill Gladys Spellman's seat in Congress. Hoyer grinned uncomfortably and the audience and other candidates laughed, but Lee's comment points to a ticklish problem for over one-third of the 32 candidates running for Maryland's 5th District seat -- they simply don't live in the district.

Nine years ago, when the state's current eight congressional districts were formed, a boundary line was drawn on election maps through the center of Prince George's County dividing the Maryland suburb into a northern section that is the 5th District and a southern section that, along with Anne Arundel County, forms the 4th District.

The line is scheduled to be redrawn by the state legislature this year, but until that happens Hoyer will remain south of the border -- by only four blocks, he is quick to point out. Another major Democratic candidate, Sue V. Mills, has the same problem. She lives in Oxon Hill, in the heart of southern Prince George's and the 4th District, which is represented by the popular Rep. Marjorie Holt. Other Republican and Democratic candidates as far away as Gaithersburg, Severna Park and Baltimore.

Although none of these 12 men and women will be able to vote for themselves in this race, all are entitled to run for the seat and any other in Maryland. The U.S. Constitution requires only that a congressional candidate be a resident of the state. Over the years there have been a number of representatives who have lived outside their districts, though this has never occurred in Maryland, according to state election board officials.

Despite the consitutional provisions, the carpetbagger tag, with its insinuations of opportunistic behavior, is not one that any of the candidates would choose to wear during a congressional quest, when all are stressing their dedication to the public good. As a result, almost all of the in-district candidates have tried to firmly affix the label to their opponents.

"I don't know why they [the out-of-district candidates] would want to run for this seat," said Sen. Edward Conroy of Bowie, who views Mills and Hoyer as two of his three major opponents. "I would never go to Marjorie Holt's district and run down there."

Said Edna McClellan, campaign manager for Democrat Reuben Spellman: "I think people in the 5th District deserve a representative who can vote for him or herself in this election."

Mills and Hoyer, the two major out-of-district candidates, said that they are rarely if ever asked about or criticized for not living in the district. But they concede, in a 32-person, three-week race, anything can make a difference. So both have carefully developed strategies to deal with the problem of having found themselves on the wrong side of the boundary when the special election was called.

Mills, a political conservative who in past years proposed forming a separate county or city for her southern Prince George's area, is now downplaying her south-county roots. Instead, Mills has been reminding Democratic primary voters that she has always held posts that served a countyside constituency. Besides, she says, if elected she will move into the 5th District.

Hoyer, a former state senator who ran the county's delegation in Annapolis, is taking a somewhat different approach. The 5th District seat, he says, is a Prince George's County seat and anyone with a history of county involvement should be eligible for it. The 4th District, where he lives, is dominated by Anne Arundel County voters and is therefore best left to residents of that county. Besides, he says, he lived in the 5th until recently and quite likely will be included in it again when the legislature redraws the congressional lines.

While Mills and Hoyer say they have succeeded in minimizing the residency issue, there is another candidate, Stewart Bainum, who has found it annoyingly troublesome.

Bainum, a state delegate from Montgomery County, recently moved from Silver Spring to Takoma Park where he found himself living in one of the six Montgomery election precincts that are included in the 5th Congressional District. Not long after his move, the Spellman seat was declared vacant and Bainum, a liberal Montgomery Democrat from a wealthy family, began campaigning in Prince George's. Almost immediately Bainum discovered that the Montgomery label caused some hostility among Prince George's voters, who frequently view their neighbors to the west as a snooty and often condescending bunch.

First came the article in a county weekly headlined "Fifth District race draws wealthy interloper." Then there were the occasional hostile responses during campaigning, when some people who would say, according to Bainum campaign aide Steve Silver, "God-damnit he's from Montgomery County and I'm not going to vote for him." So Bainum avoided all mention of his Montgomery County origins in campaign literature and instead talked about his residence in the district and in Takoma Park, a city cut in half by the Prince George's-Montgomery line.

That solved the residency issue for the time being, but Silver concedes that there might be more trouble ahead on April 7 primary day, for then each candidate is listed on the ballot with place of residence -- by county.