Gov. Harry Hughes' secretaries have added a new task to their daily chores. They clip obituaries.

With the same care accorded budget documents and mail from the White House, these death notices on everyone from famous Marylanders to obscure state employes now are forwarded to the governor, who has taken to sending bereaved constituents handwritten condolence notes on his official, gold-embossed stationary.

Down the hall, secretaries in Hughes' patronage office now type letters of acknowledgement for him to send every Marylander who applies for a political job. Other aides routinely dash off memos on births, deaths, honors and tragedies that touch the lives of politicians and civic leaders because, as one aide said, "the governor would probably want to drop them a note."

This is standard political behavior in most state houses, but not in Maryland--not since January 1979 when Hughes, the outsider, promised in his inaugural address to change the rules of Maryland politics, to bury its corrupt past.

"Our approach, our actions, our attitude will be different," Hughes vowed on that winter day, in the springtime of his incumbency.

A private sort of public figure, the Hughes of 1979 told aides that mass mailings of condolence notes seemed "hokey." The unease became part of his leadership style. At breakfasts with General Assembly leaders, his plodding presentations so bored legislators that one recalls: "I would fall asleep. I remember feeling frustrated for him. He went through six or eight issues and he was very diffuse. There was no force behind him. He didn't focus."

Hughes acknowledged in an interview last week that he may have carried his pledge "to be different" too far. So now he is writing condolence notes. Now he is making guarded overtures to longtime political adversaries, inviting them to his office for friendly chats. Now he is exploiting media attention to promote himself and his programs. Now, after three years of languor in the State House, he is flexing the powers of incumbency as never before--and appearing to enjoy it.

Now, also, it is time to run for reelection.

Hughes acknowledges that he is consciously trying to change his image, that there was too much naivete in the man who declared on that January day: "Maryland may have a very quiet administration. But I think I can speak for every citizen when I say we've had enough media events . . . . We need meaningful events."

In his State House office last week, hours after he appeared before television cameras to lambaste the National Rifle Association for opposing his proposed gun control bill, Hughes reflected: "I hope I've grown. You do learn in the job, and you do learn that you have to do things. You can't rely on things just happening." He glanced at an unfinished condolence note on his mahogany desk, and went on: "You learn, you really do learn that you have to blow your own horn a little."

The 55-year-old Hughes spoke at times with a tentative boastfulness of the past six weeks, of his successful fund-raiser, of the recent passage of two Hughes-sponsored initiatives in the General Assembly, of his growing strength in the polls. But at other times he drifted back to his old style of understatement: a governor still experimenting with his role as incumbent, caught between the outsider of 1978 and the insider of 1982.

Virtually no one in this political town would say that Harry Hughes has been reborn as a rousing leader. Some respected State House veterans contend that he is getting credit only for what he should have done all along, for not putting them to sleep at breakfast meetings, for focusing more on important issues, for lobbying the legislature with more determination. They say he has too long ignored the political clubs, the precinct organizations that turn out the votes on election day. And for that reason, these officials contend, Hughes is vulnerable to his main challenger, Republican Anne Arundel County Executive Robert A. Pascal, whose appeal crosses party lines and penetrates the strategic Democratic stronghold of Baltimore.

Although Hughes discounts these warnings, still calling himself a candidate of "people, not politicians," a noticeable rapprochement has begun between the insiders and the governor, the man whose 1978 victory startled and affronted established Democratic clubs, almost all of which opposed him.

The warming trend coincides with Hughes' new political attentiveness ("Legislators are basically insecure. If you stroke them, they love you," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides of Baltimore), and with the release of polls showing that Hughes is a likely favorite for reelection in November. Slowly, faint praise has filtered into the unenthusiastic Hughes reviews of past years. The pols apparently are getting used to him, and he to them.

"We recognize he's got his limitations, but I'm coming to realize that he's the only ball game in town," said Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George's), chairman of his county's formidable Senate delegation. "Nobody's going to beat him in my mind. He may not be my first choice, but he's my man and I'm going to work with him."

Such assistance is valuable for Hughes, particularly if he is forced to run without the active support of local Democratic clubs. "The governor won't need precinct workers in my district," Miller said. "My organization will do all the work for him. Our literature will be his literature. His name and face will be on everything we print. We'll turn out the vote for him. He won't put one dime into it and he'll be completely covered."

The comradely relationship has been good for Prince George's, too, Miller observed. Hughes bowed to the county's pleas for more political strength when redrawing the state's legislative districts. And he recently agreed to virtually all of the Prince George's Senate delegation's recommendations for patronage appointments on local college boards, the state racing commission and other political berths.

In the recent flurry of changes in Hughes' style, there has been only one substantive change in his politics: his shift to a more conservative stance on crime, an issue at the center of his reelection campaign. Hughes suffered a serious erosion in popularity a year ago, just after his prisons policy had dissolved into disarray with the forced resignation of his liberal corrections chief and heavy publicity of prison mismanagement. Polls then also showed a growing public perception of Hughes as weak and unassertive. At the time, Republican Pascal was framing his 1982 challenge, pegging crime and leadership as Hughes' two soft spots.

Within months, Hughes moved from a corrections policy of reform to one of toughness, calling for construction of a new prison, demanding tighter discipline in existing facilities, attacking court rulings against double-celling in Maryland's crowded system--positions he never had taken before.

At about the same time, he changed press secretaries, from an aide who believed that a governor should "earn" media coverage, to his present press adviser who believes in courting it. A tough-talking Hughes began holding press conferences about crime and prisons; the more moderate Hughes had stated his views in private meetings.

As his reelection effort approached full strength, Hughes' campaign advisers privately voiced concern about his bland image. They wanted a departure from the Hughes of the 1979 inaugural. As Hughes himself put it: "The voters were not persuaded by a host of promises, for in fact I made few and those were limited, logical, feasible to deliver. The mandate was conferred exactly for these reasons. The people of Maryland have had enough political manipulation . . . ." Now, Hughes' advisers insisted, he needed to become more of a political showman, to expand the promotional campaign from crime-fighting to the rest of his administration.

And so began the press conferences: Hughes favors welfare increases; Hughes calls for a gasoline tax increase; Hughes calls for a new prison in Western Maryland; Hughes attacks President Reagan's New Federalism; Hughes calls for aid to minority businesses; Hughes pushes a tougher gun control law; Hughes supports relief for the lending industry. The governor who for three years had lacked a public personality suddenly began taking on political dimensions.

At the same time, Hughes took the first steps to temper press criticism, making overtures to certain legislators who regularly had attacked him in public. A month ago, Hughes' press secretary Lou Panos invited one of the governor's most sharp-tongued critics, Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Prince George's), to stop by Hughes' office for a chat.

"I'd been reaming the guy Hughes for three years," Maloney said. "I walked in there and I couldn't believe it. Harry just started talking. I used to think of him like an inanimate object, like an ashtray or a doorknob. I mean he just didn't communicate. All of a sudden, here he was talking about his days in the Senate, about the drinking age, about Prince George's County. Hughes is a real chatterbox."

The tete-a-tete lasted more than an hour, Maloney said. It didn't win him over, but "it gave me a human dimension. I'll keep attacking him on issues, but I'm not going to attack him any more as a human being."

That may not be enough to produce a successful General Assembly session, however. The most politically explosive bills in Hughes' legislative package, a proposed gas tax increase, lending industry relief, a clean air measure, still await final votes.

While Hughes has shown grow- ing effectiveness in this session as a lobbyist for his causes, he remains a soft-sell governor compared to his predecessors, who routinely offered patronage jobs and other perks in return for legislative support.

Former governor Marvin Mandel dispatched six or seven lobbyists to cajole legislators; Hughes, by contrast, has one chief lobbyist and one assistant, who often are overextended. As a result, Hughes has made several lobbying missteps in this session: calling the entire women's caucus off the House floor on a recent day, for example, to ask for support on his 21-year-old drinking age bill. Angered by the interruption, three women refused to leave the floor, and others said later they were offended. "He helped neither the women, nor the House, nor the bill," said a legislative leader.

Such incidents lead even Hughes' supporters to wonder aloud why he waited until now to turn the tools of incumbency to his own advantage. And these political slip-ups delight his detractors, such as Del. Paul Muldowney (D-Washington County), who contend that Hughes' recent changes are nothing more than desperation, election-year tricks.

"I think it's a disservice to everyone to have a governor who sits on his hands for three years on a critical issue like prison space, and then makes a last-minute political decision to build a new prison in my county and comes out smelling like a rose," Muldowney said.

Press secretary Panos ardently defends his boss' behavior, both in style and substance. "There's a very simple explanation" of why Hughes waited so long to assert himself, Panos said: "He's a shy man and he feared rejection."

First Lady Patricia Hughes, who long has urged her husband to raise his profile, also defends his go-slow approach: "Obviously, when you wake up one morning and find you're the governor, and nobody expected you to be, you do tend to be very deliberate and very careful. You don't grow into it overnight."

Among the politicians who have watched Hughes from a distance for three years, and who now sense him moving closer to the fold, the explanation is not really important.

"Look," said Miller. "He was terrible the first three years. I was very disappointed. But many of us are beginning to say: 'This is the kind of guy we want to run with. He's decent, he's honest, he's smart, he's handsome. Hell, we want to run with him.' And I perceive him saying he wants to run with us."