The candidate spent almost three hours making his pitch to a group of 25 high school coaches. He told them, repeatedly, about his days as an athlete, advised them on how they could overcome their problems and then munched a sandwich and listened as several of them told him their troubles. By the time he walked out the door of the Knights of Columbus headquarters in Forestville it was dark and he was so tired his walk was more a hobble than anything else. But as he stepped into the night, he was beaming.

"Converts," he said, elated. "Those are converts in there, converts." He pointed a finger. "Don't underestimate Robert A. Pascal. "If I can get the message out, I'm gonna beat this guy. You just watch."

There are 154 days left till Robert A. Pascal finds out if he has gotten his message out. Right now, the polls say he has a lot of converting to do if he is going to beat "this guy"--Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes--an incumbent Democrat in a Democratic state whose lead, depending on which poll you believe, is now hovering around 30 points.

Hughes has raised twice as much money as Pascal. His campaign has all the trappings and advantages of incumbency. Seventy percent of the people in Maryland have little or no idea who Pascal is. Still, Pascal, 47, the Republican Anne Arundel County executive for eight years, insists he is going to win. He points out that four years ago in May, Hughes' name recognition--in a contested primary--was near zero. He doesn't shout that he will win on the stump or promise it in the backroom. He just says it.

He says it most fervently, it seems, when he is in Baltimore where he is well known, and, for the most part, well liked. His friendship with Mayor William Donald Schaefer, which Pascal mentions at intervals of about 12 seconds when he is campaigning, and his ability to relate to the city's blue collar workers--"I was raised over a bakery in Jersey"--gives him a base in the traditionally Democratic city. Whether that base can be converted into the 50 percent of the votes Pascal promises to get on election day is another question.

There are two views of the Pascal campaign in the state. The first holds that Pascal's notion that he can wait until the final 90 days to make his move on Hughes is something straight out of "Fantasy Island," that all he needs is a little guy tugging on his arm, yelling, "Boss, boss, de plen, de plen," to complete the make-believe scenario.

"He's got to start taking risks if he's going to win," said Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery). "In a challenge race you've got to get out early and create credibility. I don't go for that peaking theory. You've got to be out there early, slogging away in the trenches."

Sen. Edward P. Thomas (R-Frederick), who has been urging Pascal since March to pick up the pace of his campaign, agrees: "If he doesn't get it going soon, the ship is going to end up dead in the water. It's time to pump some wind into the sails--now, not later."

The second view is that Pascal is doing the right thing, holding back, not spending too much time, energy, or money, too soon, especially since he has no primary opponent.

"There is no point in using up resources early when you don't have a primary fight," said Richard H. Wade, who has done publicity for Pascal for six years. "Robert Pascal is a man with an acute sense of timing. He will know when to announce his running mate, when to make his move, when to move in. There's no need to do all that right away."

Wade's is the approach Pascal has been advised to take by his inner circle, which includes Herman Intemann, the 74-year-old former state transportation secretary who has run Pascal campaigns since 1974 (and the one man, according to insiders, who can give Pascal orders); Paul Newman, a media consultant who was hand-picked by Intemann; Fred Roberts, the three-day-a-week campaign manager who is reportedly being paid $5,500 a month, and Dan D. Zaccagnini, an aide to U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, a longtime Pascal ally and friend.

They have urged, essentially, a 90-day campaign, one that banks on state Sen. Harry J. McGuirk (D-Baltimore) cutting Hughes up somewhat in the Democratic primary and Pascal charging in late to finish off the reeling Hughes.

"Name recognition is something you can solve in a matter of weeks with media (TV ads)," Wade said. "The question is, do you have the time and money to frame that identification in the proper way."

Pascal wants to be identified as a man with solutions to basic problems. He has hammered at Hughes for lack of leadership, for not building new prisons fast enough, for not stimulating business in the state, for waiting too long to use a gas tax to repair state roads. But there are few major ideological differences between the two men. They come down on the same side of the abortion question (prochoice). They both believe in some kind of gun control. Coming from behind to win a state-wide race, in a campaign where the differences are subtle and have more to do with methodology than beliefs, is difficult.

"The differences are there, though," Pascal insisted, waving a hand disgustedly when compared to Hughes. "Harry and I are very different. We have different styles, different approaches. Harry Hughes and I have almost nothing in common. Nothing."

On a personal level that is true. Hughes, as one longtime Democrat puts it, is "the ultimate media candidate." The governor comes across well on television because he is tall and distinguished looking, but is not as good in a crowd because by nature he is an introvert.

Pascal, blocky and wide-shouldered, with a habit of dropping his Gs and reverting to cliches--"let me tell you where I'm comin' from; when the rubber hits the road; that's where the action is"--works a crowd well. He is outgoing and friendly, a back-slapper: "Hey, how ya doin' pal. What's the name? Yeah, sure, I know where you're comin' from on that."

His first media blitz, scheduled to begin in several days, will emphasize those differences. Pascal will be portrayed as the tough crimefighter, the man who clamped down on juvenile crime in his county, who has called for more prison space for years. Pascal wants to be viewed as hardnosed, ready to take on the criminals in a way Hughes hasn't. Hughes speaks softly. Pascal's approach will be emphatic.

These first commercials will be crucial to Pascal because he must make an immediate impression on people, get them to notice him and like him. That may ultimately be the key to his chances for success.

The other key, Pascal says, is in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where close to 90 percent of the voters still don't know who he is. That is why his running mate will probably come from Montgomery County. Who it will be is a mystery to everyone in the party. Pascal insists he doesn't know yet and may not make up his mind for another 10 days. He has been turned down once, by Del. Constance A. Morella (R-Montgomery), who told him she would rather seek reelection.

Pascal, who started the campaign slowly is now working almost nonstop. But even if he works 18 hours a day from now until Nov. 2, he will reach only a small percentage of the voters in person.

"Bob may be able to reach 75,000 people in this campaign between now and November," said Zaccagnini, "but that isn't going to get him elected. In the Washington area people don't know him at all. You can reach a couple million people with media. But it has to be effective."

And it is expensive. Three weeks of exposure in the Washington area, if one pays for three prime-time exposures per week on three stations, costs about $250,000. Right now, that is slightly more than the Pascal campaign has raised. Last year, Pascal was told by a consultant that it would take a minimum of $1.5 million to beat Hughes.

"That's the question in this campaign," Pascal admitted. "Can we get the money we need to get the exposure I've got to have. We're going to have fund-raisers, I'm going to spend a lot of time on the hook phone and we'll do it. That's a lot of money, though."

There was hope, early in the campaign, that the Republican National Committee would chip in with money and advisers. But, with summer approaching and the polls not good, it is unlikely that any big Republican dollars will reach the Pascal campaign. "A snowball's shot in hell," said one source, assessing Pascal's chances for national help. "Right now, there's no evidence that Hughes is vulnerable."

Pascal smiles at that assessment. "Just wait until November. We'll see who's vulnerable then."

He has given his probusiness speech this night, telling a combined audience made up of ironworkers (labor) and contractors (management) how he plans to convert what worked in Anne Arundel County to state-wide success. "If somebody says they want to expand their business in our county, they go to the top of the heap. That's the name of the game." He has, as always, invoked Schaefer's name (three times) drawing his biggest round of applause by calling him, "the best mayor in this country."

He has been escorted around the room by two of the union's leaders, shaking hands with almost everyone in the ballroom. Finally, leaving, a man grabs him and says, "Bob, we're with you, we're going to beat that do-nothing." His feet are barely touching the ground now. "Baltimore, this is Baltimore," he says. "Democratic stronghold. Listen to these people. They gonna vote for Harry Hughes?"

He heads for the door. Behind him, a man from Montgomery County watches. "Nice guy," he says. "Is he the one running against Larry Hogan?"

Labor and William Donald Schaefer are Pascal's trump cards. He is counting on both, one way or the other, to get him a strong enough vote in Baltimore that, combined with a strong showing in the traditional Republican strongholds out west and a respectable performance in the Washington area, he can squeak past Hughes. His speeches change, depending on his audience, but invariably he works his way around to Mayor Schaefer, always telling people the story of sitting in an Annapolis Burger King 18 months ago and saying to Schaefer, "You run, I'll support you."

Schaefer didn't run. But he has let it be known that Hughes is not his favorite politician. Pascal doesn't expect the Democratic mayor to openly support him, but he is counting on Schaefer's cadre of workers to help him.

"What do you think a nonendorsment of Harry Hughes by Don Schaefer means?" Pascal said. "Who do you think Schaefer's people will work for?"

Many of Schaefer's people are connected with labor. Pascal goes over well with union people. Two weeks ago, five days after Hughes entered through a back door a hotel that was being picketed, Pascal was introduced by the new president of the steelworkers union, Don Irvine, as a man who, "I can assure you will never cross a picket line."

It wasn't an endorsement, but it didn't hurt.

Mike Pucci, vice president of ironworkers and glaziers Local 16, introduced him Wednesday as, "the next governor of Maryland." That was, Pucci said, an endorsement.

The key will come in the early fall when the AFL-CIO council votes on endorsing a gubernatorial candidate. Traditionally, the council endorses Democrats. But, Pascal campaign sources maintain that Pascal has a 50-50 chance of at least coming away with a nonendorsement by the council. That leaves each local's president free to do what he wants.

"If that happens, a lot of guys will be with us," Pascal said. "And don't bet that it won't happen."

It is an ugly, drizzly day in Baltimore's inner harbor. He has already been to Morella's announcement at a Montgomery County restaurant to make himself visible to the party regulars there. Now, he is working the crowd at the "Law Day Exposition," police showing citizens the kind of work they do. He is recognized in this crowd and greeted, for the most part, warmly. "Hey, I'm with you, Bob," says one policeman. "I hear you're 30 points behind, but don't worry, you'll get him." He enjoys this. Here, there are signs of discontent with Hughes. Most of those offering support say they are Democrats. He is grinning broadly when a woman comes up, grabs his hand and says, "I hear you're a born-again Christian. I'm with you." The smile fades. Pascal is a born-again Christian but doesn't like to talk about it. "I had no great revelation or anything. I just believe in that book." He walks down to Schaefer's new boat and runs into Buddy Paluggi, who works for Schaefer in public works. Paluggi grabs him by the arm and begins taking him from boat to boat. "Meet our next governor." The rain grows heavy and he retreats below deck on a friend's boat to watch a basketball game. He puts his feet up, sips on a light beer and inhales deeply. He is tired.

"I got five months to catch him. Five months." He smiles. "That's plenty of time, pal, plenty of time."