On a fundraising foray to California, U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) courted contributors at breakfast in Sacramento, at lunch in the country home of a Bay-area real estate magnate and during cocktails and dinner in San Francisco.

The reserved Sarbanes also has wooed supporters in the New Jersey living room of his old Princeton roommate and the Michigan home of a businessman recruited to the cause by fellow Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

In Bethesda last week, Sarbanes was the beneficiary when millionaire sportsman Abe Pollin asked friends to pay $500 apiece for French pastries and an evening with the junior senator from Maryland.

While Maryland Republicans are still trying to figure out who is the strongest challenger, the incumbent Democrat is busy raising money--more than $400,000 at the last official count. Traveling the country from Oregon to Florida and working his home state at fundraisers large and small, the low-key Sarbanes has amassed a campaign fund 10 times that of the most visible GOP rival.

Sarbanes, who doesn't even face a primary, has most of the cash socked away in a money market fund, earning more than 13 percent interest.

It is a strange state of affairs for Sarbanes, a critic of long campaigns and a politician who shrinks from the limelight. But Sarbanes was jarred into motion last year when the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) targeted him for extinction a full 19 months before election day.

"We've done more fundraising ahead of time than in 1976," said Sarbanes, harking back to the million-dollar primary and general election race that made him a senator. "I think the NCPAC attack obviously began to focus us on the campaign sooner than would otherwise have been the case."

The anti-Sarbanes effort, on which NCPAC has spent more than $340,000, has had one fortunate side effect for the relatively unknown senator from Maryland. It turned him into something of a national cause and startled his supporters into action, particularly the act of writing checks to Citizens for Sarbanes.

"The American people don't like to see someone put on a hit list," said Michigan businessman Paul Zuckerman, whose wife contributed $500 after attending a Sarbanes fundraiser in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.

NCPAC has even given Sarbanes' admirers a new fundraising pitch. Sacramento Mayor Phillip Isenberg said California Assemblyman Art Agnos invoked the specter of NCPAC at the breakfast last December that kicked off Sarbanes' whirlwind day of California fundraising. "Art had this engaging way of saying, 'They're a bunch of rats out there trying to get rid of a fine U.S. senator. He needs our help, and the one way to help is to give him some money,' " Isenberg recalled. The mayor wrote a check for $250.

Four weeks later, when the proceeds were counted, Sarbanes campaign was more than $21,000 richer in California cash. Around the country, liberals who like his voting record, Jews who say they appreciate his "friendship to Israel," and Greek-Americans who know him as the first Greek-American elected to the Senate, met the NCPAC challenge by reaching for their checkbooks. About $60,000 of Sarbanes' larger contributions--those of $200 or more--have come from outside Maryland.

A Maryland affiliate of NCPAC and aides to Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan, one of two announced GOP candidates, are criticizing Sarbanes' out-of-state fundraising efforts. "It disturbs me. There are these $1,000 contributions from California and New Jersey. Sarbanes is probably better known outside Maryland than inside," said Mike Hoback, Hogan's campaign manager.

The senator himself is proud of his national support. "Some people think that I do my job well, that I stand for important things," Sarbanes said in an interview last week. Those who organize the out-of-town fundraisers are often old friends from his days at Princeton or Harvard Law School, political acquaintances or supporters from the Greek-American community, he explained. "I would hope my friends and relatives from around the country would support me. I would be concerned if they didn't."

Sarbanes' aides also are quick to assert that more than 1,300 of the 2,400 individual contributors to his campaign--about 54 percent--are Maryland residents, and many of the others are Marylanders who sent contributions from business addresses in the District. Among the out-of-state contributions are many unsolicited ones that come into Sarbanes' office every time a story appears in some newspaper about the NCPAC attack, according to Sarbanes press aide.

Labor, a traditional supporter of the Maryland senator, has also done its part, contributing more than 60 percent of the $107,000 Sarbanes has received from political action committees (PACs). The rest came from business, trade association, professional and civic groups.

Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has given Sarbanes $17,500, said NCPAC gets its funds nationwide. "They get money from all over and they bring it all into Maryland to be against Paul," Ford said. "Then Paul has to do the same thing. It's like that law of physics," Ford continued, slightly rewriting Newton's Third Law of Motion, "wherever there is a move there is a countermove."

Anne Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee, said, "Almost no one could afford to raise money within their own state in this era of the million-dollar campaigns."

As far as Sarbanes is concerned, this will certainly be in that category. Citing NCPAC's threat to spend $400,000 and the Republican National Committee's pledge to pour substantial sums into defeating him, Sarbanes said his fundraising goal is between $1.2 and $1.5 million.