Maryland Republicans say they have the textbook-perfect candidate for governor of their diverse state. Anne Arundel County Executive Robert A. Pascal is an Italian Catholic who is married to a born-again Christian. He grew up in the city and governs the suburbs. He entered politics as a Democrat, but switched in 1970 to the GOP. He even was drafted in the 1950s by the Baltimore Colts, although he passed them up for the Montreal Alouettes.

"Now if Bob Pascal could just figure out a way to be Jewish, too, he'd have everything," cracked state Democratic Party chairman Rosalie Abrams.

"Don't look now, but he may have figured it out," said a close associate, who notes that among Pascal's potential running mates are several prominent Jewish Republicans.

With his first big fund-raiser scheduled for Dec. 15, the gregarious Pascal is the only major Republican challenger in sight for Gov. Harry Hughes in 1982. But while Republican leaders express enthusiasm about Pascal's wide appeal, many say they fear he has moved too slowly if he hopes to topple an incumbent Democrat in a state dominated three-to-one by Democratic voters. Pascal has not yet hired a pollster or professional campaign consultant and has not devised a plan for winning the state, although his aides say they are at work on all three.

By contrast, Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Holt had lined up a pollster and a campaign analyst within a month after the 1980 election, in order to assess her chances against U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes in 1982 -- a race she recently abandoned to seek reelection to the House.

Pascal makes no secret of the reason for the delay.

"Money," he said with a grin, in a recent interview. "We're frugal."

He has, instead, spent his time doing what he is known to do best: meet Marylanders and shake hands at gatherings as diverse as the NAACP convention in St. Mary's County, Democratic fund-raisers in populous Baltimore, and the Women's Republican Club in Hagerstown.

He is on the road with his wife, Nancy, at least four nights a week, according to aides. Like Hughes, he has not officially declared his candidacy, but he is expected to do so early in 1982.

"I don't need a professional poll," said the 47-year-old Pascal. "I've done my own poll of being out with the folks, and I know they want a change."

What "the folks" want in Maryland is anybody's guess, with 11 months to go until the general election. While there is some dissatisfaction with Hughes in both parties (recent surveys show an erosion in his popularity, aggravated by attacks from fellow Democrats who call him weak and indecisive), the soft-spoken governor recently has projected a bolder image and has been praised for it by several former critics.

In the last several weeks, Hughes has endorsed major legislative issues including gun control, mental-health funding, prison construction and a new gas tax, lining up support for his 1982 General Assembly program well in advance of the session. He also has stepped up his travel schedule, mingling with voters across the state.

The odds in the Hughes-Pascal race are so fluid that politicians change them from one week to the next, every time a new issue emerges. Even last week's return of former governor Marvin Mandel, after 19 months in prison, has been plugged into the equation, since Hughes' election in 1978 was credited largely to a reformist backlash against the Mandel years. Hughes' advisers say they plan to use the issue again in 1982, with a campaign theme of "restoration of integrity in government."

"Even if Mother Teresa ran against Harry, people would say she was the Mandel candidate," complained a former Mandel associate, noting that many of the former governor's friends are likely to support Pascal. "With Marvin back in town, Harry Hughes has a ready-made, single-issue campaign. And it's not a social issue, it's a political issue."

Pascal says that he is not worried about the Mandel issue.

"They've tried to tag me as the Mandel candidate in several circles," he said. "But what kind of credibility does it have when Harry Hughes himself has wined and dined some of Marvin's old people in the last few weeks?"

Hughes recently included several of Mandel's former financiers in a series of elegant dinners with business leaders at the governor's mansion, where Hughes' 1982 campaign organizers have been soliciting support and seed money.

While any incumbent Democrat is an automatic favorite in Maryland, Pascal is considered the Republican Party's best hope because of his diverse constituency. He is a close friend of Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who attacks Hughes loudly and regularly and has hinted that he may help Pascal -- quietly, if not publicly -- in 1982. It was Jimmy Carter's huge victory margin in vote-rich Baltimore that delivered the state for the Democratic ticket in 1980.

Pascal's strategists say they hope that a strong showing in Baltimore, combined with Pascal's popularity in his home county of Anne Arundel and in neighboring Baltimore County, will hold down Hughes' margin in that populous, Democratic area. If the strategy works, Republicans say they believe that the election will be won in the Washington suburbs, the state's only other major population center

But the Washington suburbs are now the governor's strongest territory. A recent state Republican Party poll showed Hughes with a favorable rating of 45.9 percent rating in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Pascal, by contrast, had a favorable rating of only 3.9 percent. All but 1 percent of the others polled had no opinion of him or did not recognize his name, according to a GOP official.

To build support in the Washington area, Pascal is considering several Montgomery County Republicans as possible running mates, including Republican Party leader Allan Levey, State Sen. Howard Denis and Del. Luiz Simmons. But another major prospect, according to several associates, is Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor, who would bring a law-and-order tone to the ticket. "They're dangling it in front of everybody right now," one Republican said.

Pascal, the son of a New Jersey high school teacher and Democratic Party activist, was a star halfback at Duke University, where he met his wife, Nancy, the "campus queen," now a prominent figure in evangelistic Christian activities around Maryland. After playing pro football in Canada, Pascal went to work for his father-in-law's Florida-based gasoline products company. He now owns its former Maryland branch, United Propane Inc., which grosses about $2 million a year.

Pascal is finishing his second term and is barred by law from seeking reelection. His record in office mixes conservatism and moderation, giving him some appeal in both parties. He was a late-comer to Ronald Reagan's bandwagon, campaigning for Reagon only during the last week before the 1980 election.

He publicly criticizes the administration on certain issues, sounding a little like a Democrat.

"You should make cuts, but not on the backs of people," he has said. "You either invest in people through job training and education, or you end up paying for it in public assistance."

Because of those positions, and because the state is so heavily Democratic, Pascal's aides say that they are not likely to try to lure the president to Maryland to help Pascal campaign, as Marshall Coleman did in Virginia earlier this year.

But that is hardly Pascal's primary concern. First, there is the money problem. Pascal says that he hopes to collect $100,000 at his Dec. 15 fund-raiser in Baltimore; his trusted aide, Hermann Intemann predicts a more cautious $75,000. It is not yet clear whether the Republican National Committee will commit much money to Pascal, with 35 other governors' races to worry about in 1982. Pascal says he estimates that he will need about $1 million to make the race.

Also, several Democratic politicians who say they will support Pascal, concede that they might return to Hughes' fold if the governor has a productive legislative session and if the Reagan administration fails to stop the unemployment spiral, creating problems for any Republican candidate.

On issues, Pascal is expected to present a much more conservative platform than Hughes, although he still is formulating many of his positions. But he concedes that Hughes recently stole some of his fire on crime, his strongest issue, by toughening state corrections policies, appointing a more conservative prisons chief, and pushing for construction of a new prison.

Still, Pascal says that he expects his broadest appeal to come from his promise of more decisive leadership. And he appears unconcerned that the governor himself, in recent weeks, has begun to look a bit bolder.

"I think Harry Hughes hears my footsteps," Pascal says, with a smile.