Gov. Harry Hughes, preparing for the final and most critical legislative session of his first term, today downplayed the political stakes of the session, vowing to use his reelection campaign to overcome what he acknowledged is an "image problem."

Expressing frustration over persistent criticism from politicians who label him "weak" and "ineffective," Hughes said he has become convinced that he must overcome the image mainly by publicizing his accomplishments during the 1982 campaign, not by scoring victories with an often-recalcitrant legislature.

"That's the only way the message is going to get to them the voters . I'm going to have to buy the time to get it there," said Hughes, in his most open remarks to date on his plans to seek reelection.

Tanned and relaxed after a two-week Caribbean vacation, the 55-year-old Hughes did not have the look of a governor whose support has slipped in the polls, who faces a legislative session filled with no-win controversies over taxes, budget cuts and social legislation. In a wide-ranging interview in his statehouse office, he brushed aside warnings from politicians who contend that he must use the 90-day session, which starts Wednesday, to establish his image as an effective governor, to mend fences with party and legislative leaders.

Hughes recalled that it was not the politicians who elected him in 1978, and described himself still as much the same man who won a surprise victory that year--the outsider, not the organization politician.

"My election was the result of the people and not the political organizations," he said. "I certainly came into office with a certain amount of sour grapes with some legislators. In the primary, none of them were for me. And none of the politicians were for me. Some have never gotten over that and would be just as happy if I weren't successful."

Hughes defended his leadership style, which he conceded has bred some hard feelings among legislators. He has disbanded the old patronage system and has rarely resorted to ego-stroking to get bills passed.

But he acknowledged that he has recently taken at least some modest steps to change his image. In contrast to past years, Hughes has taken stands on a variety of controversial issues like gun control and welfare increases in advance of the legislative session, using his press conferences to generate publicity for his General Assembly package.

"That's a change to some extent," said Hughes. "I realized I had to do it because of the impression, which I think was a wrong impression," that he was not exercising enough leadership. "One of the things I've learned is that style becomes in certain quarters more important than substance. Accomplishments, in and of themselves, are certainly not enough. You have to counter some of the untrue myths, some of the erroneous impressions."

Hughes said the press and many politicians have not given him enough credit for what he considers his major accomplishments--wide-ranging tax relief, environmental controls, industrial development, aid to the city of Baltimore and restoring integrity in government. He said citizen groups often respond with surprise when he tells them of those achievements, which Hughes said will be the basis of his reelection campaign.

"I'm going to go to the people. As long as the people get the right word out there, and want to continue me in office, that's fine," Hughes said. "If they get the right word and don't want to continue me in office, then I accept that."

The governor has not yet declared his candidacy for reelection but is expected to do so sometime during the session.

Hughes stressed that he is not discounting the political importance of the session, in which he and legislators will be facing some of the most difficult issues of their term.

The governor said he plans to take positions in the next weeks on several sensitive issues, including bills that would lead to higher interest rates on consumer credit and a higher legal drinking age. He has already supported welfare benefit increases and a state employe pay raise, both expected to spark controversy in a session dominated by debate over how to absorb federal budget cuts.

He also said he is willing to compromise with legislative leaders on his proposal for a gasoline tax to rescue the state's strapped transportation fund for road and bridge repairs, "as long as the changes don't do violence" to the funding package.

And Hughes said he expects to make some significant changes in an advisory commission's proposal for redrawing the state's 47 legislative districts, a move that is sure to draw political fire.

The governor's critics in the legislature fault him for not making many of these decisions earlier, saying the timing raises questions about his decisiveness and hurts his image as a leader.

But Hughes, ever the outsider, took an uncharacteristic punch at his legislative critics on that and broader issues: "there seems to be a growing lack of feeling among legislators that they are elected to use their judgment in the best interest of the people they represent."

The governor resisted the notion that he has recently become a "new Harry Hughes," using more of the powers of his office to publicize his positions, getting more involved in political controversy. He said he has heard many politicians speak of him as a changed man, but added with a laugh:

"There's no new Harry Hughes. They're just realizing who the real Harry Hughes is."