"If anyone else announced they were running for governor, we would all accept that at face value. But when Harry McGuirk says he's running for governor we all poke the next guy in the ribs and say, 'what's he REALLY up to?' "

Montgomery County Senator Howard Denis

"Soft Shoes." That has been Harry J. McGuirk's nickname for most of his 22 years in the Maryland legislature. In some ways, it reflects the respect his colleagues have for McGuirk, for his ability consistently to outthink and outwit opponents.

But it also reflects the fact that when the senator from south Baltimore speaks, people listen--then try to figure out what he really means, what his motives are. "There are some guys up here who you double-check on when they make a Mother's Day resolution," said Del. Gerard F. Devlin (D-Prince George's). "There's always something hidden. Harry never shows you his entire hand."

Which is why, when McGuirk announces Tuesday that he is challenging Gov. Harry Hughes in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, a lot of politicians will poke each other in the ribs and giggle.

There will be no gales of laughter heard on the second floor of the State House, however. There, where Hughes and his staff work, the presence of McGuirk in the race is no joking matter.

"I don't think McGuirk can beat Harry Hughes," said Sen. Victor L. Crawford (D-Montgomery), "but he can hurt Hughes. He can cut him up a little and he can deflect some money away from him. That can't make the Hughes people happy."

It does make Robert A. Pascal, the only announced Republican candidate, happy. In fact, there are many people, pointing to McGuirk's friendship with Pascal in spite of their partisan differences, who think that McGuirk is merely a stalking horse for the Anne Arundel County executive. Or perhaps for Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, another Hughes critic who is being urged by some to run for governor.

That suggestion is the one thing that seems to get a rise out of McGuirk, whose thick white hair, slender mustache and stocky build give him the look of a businessman who will outslick you at every turn.

"I've never been a patsy for any man," McGuirk said when the stalking horse question was raised. "I'm getting in this race because, as I go around the state, I hear a lot of people saying they are unhappy with the Democratic Party and the man who is leading it. I want to give those people an alternative before they look to another party.

"If Harry Hughes and Robert Pascal were opponents in an election today, I think it would be close, very close."

There is genuine friction between Hughes and McGuirk, much of it stemming from 1978 when McGuirk called Hughes' candidacy for governor, "a lost ball in high grass." Hughes aides love to point out that their "lost ball" swept McGuirk's south Baltimore district.

"The governor has often said he thinks one of the greatest things about the democratic process is the fact that everyone has a chance to run for any office," Hughes spokesman Lou Panos said. "He takes any opponent seriously and would certainly never call any opponent 'a lost ball in high grass.' "

That is the public posture on Hughes side: Say you are taking McGuirk seriously and make sure to remind everyone that four years ago McGuirk did not take Hughes seriously.

Privately though, Hughes people ask the same question as everyone else: What is McGuirk really up to?

McGuirk always has wanted to be state comptroller. Conventional thinking holds that McGuirk, at age 58, thinks it's time to look elsewhere since Louis L. Goldstein is a fixture in the job. The position of state treasurer, filled by an election in the legislature, might be an alternative, friends say. Or, some speculate, if Hughes feels seriously challenged by McGuirk, he might offer him the No. 2 spot on the ticket. The treasury job seems more likely , though.

McGuirk insists the only job he is interested in is governor. He has commissioned a poll and friends say he already has contributions and pledges totalling close to $200,000. A $50-a-head fundraiser in October produced about $75,000. Another fundraiser, this one at $100 a head, tentatively is planned for late spring.

McGuirk has been telling people for months that he thinks Hughes is vulnerable and that he plans to run against him. He has been distributing buttons and bumper stickers which read, "McGuirk and Who? in '82," throughout the legislative session. But few people have taken his unofficial candidacy seriously.

"I thought he was just making quacking sounds," said House minority leader Raymond E. Beck (R-Carroll).

Whether he merely is flapping his wings to be a nuisance to Hughes or really trying to ground him, almost everyone agrees that to write off McGuirk would be a grave mistake.

"Harry McGuirk has a lot of friends in this state and very few enemies," Crawford said. "He may not have name recognition now, but he can raise money. And, in a statewide race, that's important."

Just as important to the Hughes people is the money which might remain uncommitted while McGuirk is in the race. "A lot of the money in this state is smart money," said one politician. "It's inclined to sit back and see which way the wind is blowing. As long as McGuirk is in, a lot of Democratic money may stay out."

In a contest with Hughes, McGuirk's major problems would be image and name recognition, not money. Here, as chairman of the senate's most powerful committee (Economic Affairs), as a man generally regarded as perhaps the most able of the 188 legislators, a man whose name has been linked with special-interest groups for years, everyone knows McGuirk. In his home district, which he has represented in the senate since 1967, everyone knows McGuirk.

But it stops there. Few people in Montgomery or Prince George's counties know McGuirk. Few people on the Eastern Shore or in Western Maryland know McGuirk.

"Certainly Hughes has an advantage that way starting out," Beck said. "But Harry McGuirk knows the political movers and shakers. He can get his name out quickly if that's what he wants to do."

Or, as McGuirk puts it: "When I get down to work on this, people will know me. I know all the political leaders in this state and they know me. I'm sure that will be enough."

How they will react to him is another question. McGuirk's nickname is based almost as much on appearance as style. While Hughes is the classic television politician, tall and distinguished, McGuirk looks like the classic backroom pol.

"He's a victim of his nickname and his appearance," Denis said. "Harry looks a lot more nefarious than he is. The reason he makes people uncomfortable sometimes is because he's got so much subtlety in his approach to everything. If Harry says 'how are you?' you wonder what it means. In the senate, he's as effective as they come. But statewide, I don't know how that will play."

McGuirk and his supporters maintain that Hughes' nontraditional style, his low-key approach and his lack of decisiveness make him vulnerable. They say they sense a simmering antiHughes movement around the state that is waiting for a leader who will tie it together.

"Harry seems to feel there is a great reservoir of antiHughes feeling out there," Devlin said. "I think it's more like a reservoir of nonHughes feeling. That doesn't mean people will vote against an incumbent, though."

The one person who professes to be taking McGuirk totally seriously is Pascal, who was on McGuirk's committee when Pascal was in the senate from 1971-75. "Harry McGuirk is as capable as any man in this state," Pascal said. "I certainly would not want to run against him in the general election. I want to run against the other fella."

Most people agree that, when Sept. 14 comes and goes, Pascal will be running against the other fella. But whether McGuirk will be around as a candidate Sept. 14 is another question. There is some thinking that he will use the poll results as a way of gracefully bowing out after quietly making whatever deal it is that he is seeking.

But Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), McGuirk's longtime friend and protege, says writing the McGuirk candidacy off as part of yet another hidden agenda, may be an oversimplification.

"I've already told Harry McGuirk that I'm running for his senate seat if he's serious about this race," Weisengoff said. "If he stays in this race until the last minute, he will have opposition in the primary: me. And, I've told him I'm not going to wait that long before I file."

That, McGuirk watchers say, is the key. "The day Weisengoff files for the senate is the day you know McGuirk is really in the race," said one Democrat. "Until then, we'll all sit around trying to figure out what Harry's up to. It may be that all he wants to do is make Harry Hughes squirm a little. That much, I'm sure he can accomplish."

Or, as Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly put it: "I don't know what he's up to. I don't think any of us do. I just know one thing: Harry McGuirk is not a stupid man. He's doing this for a reason. Someday, we may even find out what it is."