In Prince George's County, where political tales abound, they used to tell a story a few years back about Steny Hoyer, then at the peak of his political career as president of the Maryland Senate.

Hoyer, so the story goes, was visiting Gov. Marvin Mandel at the Governor's Mansion in Annapolis. As he made his way through the mansion, Hoyer turned to Mandel's first wife, Barbara, and commented that the decor in a particular room was not entirely to his liking. To which Mrs. Mandel is said to have replied, "Well, Steny, you'll just have to wait until you move in to do something about it."

Hoyer maintains the story is apocyphal, but it nonetheless says much about the Democratic candidate for Congress in Maryland's 5th Congressional District and how he is perceived.

For Steny Hmailton Hoyer, more than any other public figure in Prince George's, is the consummate politician, determined to get places and willing to accomodate his party and the powers that be in order to get there quickly. This drive, which has spawned its share of critcs as well as admirers, has kept Hoyer moving upward, as if he were following some sort of schedule develolped 20 years ago when he got his first taste of power as a Capitol Hill aide.

So it came as no surprise this winter when Hoyer, the former Maryland Senate president unwillingly sidelined by the voters in 1978 in a bid for lieutenant governor, decided to reenter politics at the first acceptable opportunity, the special edition to fill Gladys Spellman's congressional seat.

Since the election was announced in February after Spellman's seat was declared vacant, Hoyer has readily abandoned the more mundane pleasures of a successful lawyer's lifestyle to return to a frantic pace of night meetings, doorknocking, press conferences and debates.

In the process he has also shed the depression that Hoyer's friends say descended on him two years ago after he and running mate Blair Lee were upset by Harry Hughes. And while Hoyer, now 42, says he enjoyed two years of quiet family life, there's no question in the minds of his friends that he's had enough of political exile.

Said one Hoyer associate, who has watched an upbeat Hoyer for the last two months, "He likes campaigning, he likes people, he likes issues. But it's also the supreme stroking. For all politicians you walk into a room and everyone knows your name.It must be an incredible rush."

Hoyer, reknowned for his careful statements, says simply, "Annapolis fever, Washington fever, Potomac fever, whatever, it's a desire to do something that you focus on. I see myself as caring about the issues and issues are the reason for being in politics -- notwithstanding the enjoyment derived from the process. In practicing law, I feeel like I'm doing something useful but it's not the same thing."

But the "up" from being known and liked is there. His broad toothy grin when a group of senior citizens greeted him on a recent campaign appearance with a chorus of "Hello Steny, Well Hello Steny. It's so nice to have you here with us today" testifies to that.

So does the observation of Jim Sturgess, Hoyer's campaign driver, as he watched Hoyer repeatedly delay his exit when the group struck up a second chorus of the song. "He'll never want to leave if they continue that singing," said Sturgess with a sigh as he watched Hoyer begin another round of kisses, handshakes and squeezed elbows.

As much the politician as Hoyer is now, with his conservative three-piece suits, collar pin and well-coiffed hair, he says that politics was not something he dreamed about as a child.

Until 1959, his sophomore year at the University of Maryland, Hoyer just wanted to join his uncle's public relations business in New York. Then one day, as he tells it, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy came to the University for a campaign speech.

It may have been Kennedy's pitch about how individuals make the difference or it may have been, Hoyer admits, the Bonneville convertible he drove up in, but the effect was to convince Hoyer that politics was for him.

He switched his major, applied to law school, got involved with the county and state Young Democrats, found a job on Capitol Hill and by 1966 was a 26-year-old state senator. He began pushing for the top both in the senate and in Prince George's, where he and friend Peter O'Malley began to put together what would become a very powerful Democratic organization.

By 1974, he was president of the senate, and the organization he and O'Malley had fashioned swept every office in the county. But even as Hoyer was winning praise for his accomplishments as a legislator in Annapolis, Hoyer found himself coming under increasing criticism at home for having formed an exclusive "political machine."

"There was this view that Pete [O'Malley] and Steny sat down and mapped out this plan [for winning the county]," said Hoyer. "It's like Mao taking over this village and then that one until you have the country. But it wasn't like that. It was much more akin to Topsy."

But there were others who felt as Del. Frank Pesci put it, "They ran the county, they were the bosses." And, indeed, they did wield enormous political power.

Under an agreement with Mandel, the organization, which now held every county post, was given the right to select appointments for state jobs in Prince George's, such as judgeships. It decided who would run on the countywide Democratic ticket and who would get county appointments.

Hoyer, who is known as somewhat rigid person ("he walks around like he's in three-piece underwear," says Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a frequent critic), became defensive about his role in an organization that he maintains was devoted to reforming county politics and gave the county needed clout at the state level.

By 1978 though, Hoyer was running for governor. When polls showed him unable to increase his statewide name-recognition he agreed to run for lieutenant governor on the ticket of Acting Governor Blair Lee. The arrangement, worked out with the help of Mandel, quickly prompted new charges of "machine politics."

On primary day, the ticket lost and Hoyer headed into political obliviion. It was clear that Harry Hughes would be in the Governor's Mansion deciding its decor and Sam Bogley, a former county council member and gladfly in the county organization, would be lieutenant governor. The experience was painful and friends remember on primary night an ashen-faced Hoyer, the one-time golden boy, beginning his descent into a six-month funk.

Today, Hoyer refers to the race and that time as one of the worst experiences he has had. But it proved to him that "life can be normal without a night meeting. In terms of the life-after-politics syndrome, there certainly is."

Back in politics, he is again hearing "machine" charges from both Scott, the underdog trying to win Democratic votes, and some wary members of his own party, who nonetheless acknowledge that the once powerful organization is far from organized these days.

But Hoyer's attention -- at least for now -- is focused elsewhere, as the notebooks full of federal issue papers that are piled in the back seat of his car attest. Steny Hoyer, his friends say, is back on track and Congress is all that he thinks about these days.

And if the professional political insider, the guy who friends say couldn't live happily without politics, should lose on May 19? "This is my home. This is where I live and I think the people will support me," says Hoyer, "But if they don't I will direct my life in other ways, which is not to say I wouldn't be happier in Congress. I clearly would."