Beneath the gaudy glass chandeliers of a barn-sized ballroom, the blue-bloods mixed with the blue collars, the indicted with the unindicted, jittery officeholders with their likely challengers, Catholics with Jews, blacks with whites.

Like Maryland on parade, they came from the western mountains and the Eastern Shore, from cities and suburbs, from every region of this diverse, intensely Democratic state. There were cameo appearances by Gov. Harry Hughes, U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, U.S. Reps. Barbara Mikulski, Marjorie Holt, and Royden Dyson, and scores of state and local officials. The cars eventually snaked bumper-to-bumper for more than a mile, briefly backing up traffic on the I-695 beltway.

What was this all about?

On the surface, it was just a fund-raiser for Southwest Baltimore's formidable, snow-haired state senator, Harry (Soft Shoes) McGuirk, widely considered the master tactician of the Maryland General Assembly. But it was much more than that -- because of the intrigue surrounding the political ambitions of the portly McGuirk, and because Marylanders are well into the warm up for Election 1982, which is still a year and a month away.

Recently, McGuirk, 58, has been advertising plans to run next year against Gov. Harry Hughes, calling the governor "vulnerable" and "no leader." But he is only one of several officeholders now floating such intentions. And few politicians take McGuirk's loud advance warnings at face value, since he is legendary for using power silently and invisibly -- a technique that earned him his fanciful nickname. The 1,800 people who jammed McGuirk's $50-a-person affair spent much of the evening asking him and each other what was afoot.

"Harry, what the hell are you up to?" an insurance salesman barked at McGuirk at one point.

The inscrutable McGuirk silently pointed to his tie clasp of diamonds and pearls, shaped in a question mark."I'll tell you at the end of the month when my poll comes back," he said in his low, rumbling voice, his blue eyes sparkling like little reflecting pools.

Such intrigue is typical of the maneuvers going on around the state in this early stage of the political season -- the intention stage, when hundreds talk of running and nobody declares. Challengers come cheap at this stage. Hughes and Sarbanes have at least four rumored challengers apiece, none of them official. Some politicians talk of running for two or three offices ("I'm between county executive and state senate," said kSen. H. Erle Schafer, a Democrat from Anne Arundel) and some talk of running only if their friends do not, or if their foes do. For example, if Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan seeks the Republican Senate nomination, former U.S. senator J. Glen Beall -- well-known as a Hogan foe -- has told friends he will do the same simply to block Hogan.

At this moment in the election season, appearances tend to overtake reality.

If politicians even talk of challenging kHughes, he must be vulnerable, the reasoning goes. And to keep abreast of the shifting agendas, it is essential to show up at every major political gathering.

At McGuirk's affair, there were politicans from dozens of factions and both parties, coming and going all night with their entourages, sweeping past spreads of Italian, Chinese and other delicacies, shaking hands all around.

Even Gov. Hughes put in an appearance, startling dozens of McGuirk's supporters who had proclaimed the hugh turnout a show of anti-Hughes sentiment around the state. Hughes professed to be unruffled by the size of the crowd, calling it simply a tribute to McGuirk's performance in the Senate.

"Welcome, governor," said a beaming McGuirk, greeting Hughes at the door. "You're going to see a lot of people you know here."

"Yes, I already have," Hughes answered with a big, if enigmatic, smile.

Hughes noted later that he had come at McGuirk's invitation, and had not paid for his ticket. "I'm here to show my respect for a very good, hardworking senator," Hughes said, still smiling. "And I certainly don't want to pass up a chance to shake hands with a lot of citizens." He then waded into the crowd, trailed by his wife, his bodyguard and his press secretary.

After Hughes had left, two other gubernatorial hopefuls swept through -- Anne Arundrel County Executive Robert Pascal, so far the most likely Republican nominee, and Democratic Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, considered Hughes' toughest challenger if he decides to run. Some politicians suggest that McGuirk is serving as a stalking horse for one of the two, who are both close friends of his and of each other.

"If a Republican like me is going to win in Maryland, he needs broad appeal -- to minorities, to ethnics, well, to Democrats," explained Pascal, between handshakes withmany of each.

Then came the senatorial contingent. U.S. Rep. Holt, the Anne Arundrel Republican who has floated plans to take on Sarbanes next November, scurried through the crowd, shaking several dozen hands. After Holt had exited, Sarbanes arrived, fresh from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the proposed sale of AWACS electronic surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. t

Republican leaders still will not say whom they hope to back against Srbanes, targeted by national conservative groups as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat up for reelection. Holt is expected to scrap her Senate plans for a safer run for the House, they say. And Hogan, who spread word of his Senate hopes last month, is clearly out of favor with Republican leaders.

On the gubernatorial front, Schaefer has so far refused to reveal his intentions, although a recent, unreleased poll by a prominent Democrat showed him the only candidate who already has enough support to threaten the governor. Pascal said he will not have a fund-raiser until December.

The mob at the fund-raiser testified to McGuirk's status as a Maryland institution who has weathered the upheavals of the last decade -- the fall of his currently jailed friend and ally, former governor Marvin Mandel, and the reformist blacklash that carried the dark horse Hughes into office. McGuirk has survived it all, according to his many friends, because he "helps people."

A skilleld broker of votes in Annapolis and dispenser of patronage back home in Baltimore, he is invaluable to legislators who need help in killing or passing bills and to constituents who need roads repaired. And as chairman of the powerful Senate Economic Affairs Committee, he holds sway over Maryland businesses ranging from high finance to fisheries.

Elegantly clad bankers and insurance lobyists showed up at the fund-raiser, as did the polyester-suited waterman who lobbies for Maryland crabbers, shrimpers and other fishermen -- all praising McGuirk for his help through the years. "I'll be frank," said one lobbyist who refused to be named. "Everybody here wants to pay Harry back."

There were politicians from both the Hughes era and from Maryland's scandal-scarred past that produced two successive governors whose careers ended in disgrace and a senator and congressman who were indicted. Former senator Daniel Brewster, who pleaded no contest in 1975 to charges of accepting an illegal gratuity, was there, as was 13-term former U.S. representative Edward Garmatz, whose bribery conspiracy indictment was thrown out three years ago when prosecutors announced that a key witness had lied. Also on hand was former Mandel press secretary Frank DeFilippo, now a political consultant.

The politicians talked about much more than the 1982 election. There were also the Reagan cuts and reapportionment to worry about, since both could change the political landscape. Dozens of political careers could be at stake, depending on how congressional and legislative district lines are redrawn during the 1982 session. So legislators and members of Congress nervously huddled throughout the night, plotting how to save their districts from destruction.

A Hughes-appointed commission tentatively settled Friday on a congressional district map, extendingthe district of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer into the southern part of Prince George's County, where he now lives and which Holt now represents. It would also leave Dyson, a southern Marylander, in the district that first elected him last November, rather than excising him as at least one potential opponent had hoped. The stage legislative map is much more in doubt.

McGuirk said he would not know for several days how much money he raised, but contended that only 40 of the 1,800 guests received free tickets, meaning his war chest could total almost $90,000. "Hary didn't even give me a ticket, the son-of-a-gun," said Del. Paul Weisengoff, McGuirk's fellow 37th District Democrat and devoted protege for two decades.

At about this time four years ago, when Hughes was lost in the pack of 1978 gubernatorial hopefuls, McGuirk sized up the future governor as "a lost ball in high grass," a miscalculation that both men often recall in public.

Asked during the packed fund-raiser to size up McdGuirk, the careful Hughes stood silently for a moment, then cracked a wry smile and observed, "I think this shows he's no lost ball in high grass."