They came from all over Maryland--strapless, shoeless and in some cases, shirtless--to this small fishing town's popular annual crab feast. By the time most of them left they were full of food and beer--and covered with political buttons.

Almost as soon as the waterside event in honor of former Gov. J. Millard Tawes began in the noon heat, candidates for election this fall and their entourages gathered around the revelers, pumping their hands, giving them literature and then, in the motif of the day, slapping them with stick-on political buttons.

"Let me brand you," said the politician stationed nearest the entrance gate, Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, as he slapped a green Hogan "button" on the chest of one slightly startled man, who moved past Hogan toward tables of hard-shell crabs.

Behind Hogan were the forces of Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert A. Pascal, sticking their man's buttons on almost anything that walked.

At a slight distance were two members of Gov. Harry Hughes' press office who, in the low-key style of their boss, initially hung back, faced with the sticky dilemma of whether to affix a Hughes button to the shirt of someone bearing Pascal's and Hogan's messages. But, after a few Hughes-less people went by, the governor's aides jumped into the fray, plastering yellow and black Hughes buttons on everyone as well.

"That's what this is, a great social, political gathering," said Hughes spokesman Lou Panos, as he watched the crowds multiply for the sixth annual crab and clam feast, a major summertime gathering in the state.

In any year the event named for Tawes, who was governor from 1959 to 1967 and died two years ago, attracts large numbers of people. When it began, 1,200 came, according to its sponsor, the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce. For this year's feast, now listed as an official event in the Maryland Register, more than 3,000 were expected. The Chamber provided more than 12,000 hard-shell crabs, 4,000 ears of steamed corn and untold glasses of beer for a price of $15 per person.

But this year, with every state office up for election in the fall, the crab feast resembled a political convention.

The Pascal campaign forces parked a huge trailer at the entrance to the state boat ramps, where the feast was held, and covered it with a 4-by-6-foot sign and dozens of white Pascal balloons.

Not to be outdone, Jimmy Tawes, chairman of the Hughes campaign in this area and a distant relative of the former governor, mustered a group of button-bedecked young women to hand out hats, pins and bumper stickers. Were they diehard Hughes supporters? One woman shrugged, "I'm supposed to say so."

U.S. Rep. Royden P. Dyson was not there--he was hosting a reception later in Salisbury--but his backers plastered signs on trailers and buttons on people. And the supporters of State Sen. Harry J. McGuirk, a Democrat challenging Hughes in the September primary, did the same.

All the while the candidates moved through the crowd, most of which by 1 p.m. had settled at rows of tables and was hard at work over the food.

"Hi, I'm Harry Kelley, running for governor," said the suntanned mayor of Ocean City as he handed out a few pens with his name and a few keys to the city. Kelley, who in the past has said he would campaign only from Ocean City because "everyone in Maryland eventually comes there," admitted that his campaign has a long way to go. But, he said, "I'll tell you this: I will be tough."

Of the major candidates, Hughes was the first to arrive--by helicopter--and wade into the tables, quietly saying hello and nodding to people as cameras snapped his picture. Pascal followed about an hour later, well after his scheduled appearance, because his plane had been rerouted from a nearby airport. As the event was breaking up, McGuirk arrived. He and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Samuel Bogley, stayed right by the exit, shaking hands with Marylanders as they left.

"When you arrive this late, this is as good a place as any to catch people," said Bogley. But as he watched people leave with one or two souvenir beer mugs hooked through their belts, he added, "It depends on how much they've imbibed if they'll remember who you are."