In Maryland politics one of the rituals of fall involves television. When Labor Day comes and goes, political commercials on television usually begin.

Not so in 1982.

Beginning Tuesday (the day after Labor Day), Baltimore state Sen. Harry J. McGuirk, underdog challenger in the Democratic primary to Gov. Harry Hughes, will be on television. But he may only be on one station in Baltimore and he may not be on in the Washington market at all.

The reason: Money.

Hughes, who last bought television time in the spring, will probably be seen on Baltimore and Washington channels, but only in small doses. His big TV push may not come until the last four weeks of the campaign. A week ago, thinking McGuirk would not go on TV at all, Hughes' advisers thought seriously about skipping TV until after the primary. Upon learning that McGuirk would go on TV, the Hughes strategists decided to reconsider.

The reason: Money.

Hughes' likely Republican opponent, Robert A. Pascal, after two weeks of commercials in July, canceled a week of planned advertisements in August and will not be on the tube again until after the Sept. 14 primary.

The reason: Money.

One of the byproducts of tight money is candidates hedging their bets when it comes to television, trying to outmaneuver their opponents, being extra careful not to waste any of their hard earned dollars.

Example: The Pascal media strategy at the beginning of the campaign called for running three ads during the third week in August as a follow-up to the July effort. The 30-second spots were taped the first week in August, two emphasizing the themes as the first round of commercials -- crime and jobs -- and a third extolling the virtues of Pascal's juvenile delinquent rehabilitation programs in Anne Arundel County.

But then the Pascal campaign got word that Hughes had decided not to go back on TV before the primary. The Hughes people said that because their polling shows them with a substantial lead on McGuirk, there was no need. Pascal does not contest the lead. He does contest the reasoning.

"The reason they're staying off TV is they haven't got the money," he said. "If they did, why wouldn't they go on and try to ensure a wipeout to give them momentum for the general election? If you've got lots of money, sure you save some of it, but you don't sit on it. They just don't have the big dollars. They're having trouble."

If Hughes is having trouble, it is to a lesser degree than Pascal or McGuirk. On Aug. 17, when candidates had to file their first financial disclosure forms, the Hughes campaign reported contributions and loans totaling $547,000. Of that, however, only $85,000 remained.

That still put Hughes in much better shape than Pascal, who had raised $333,000 but only had $16,000 on hand and also had a loan of $25,000 outstanding. McGuirk, the only major candidate who had not been on TV, had raised slightly better than $200,000 and had about $65,000 left.

Friday, the candidates have to file again. Pascal said he does not know how much more his campaign has raised since the Aug. 17 filing but campaign spokesman Ilene Heaney admitted it was "not much."

McGuirk campaign manager Elayne Hettleman did not have an exact figure either but said, "do I have $150,000 to run this campaign with? No, I don't."

Even Hughes, the incumbent and the favorite to win, is not drowning in dollars. Since the last filing his campaign has raised about $36,000 and now has about $64,000 in hand.

By comparison, four years ago, Blair Lee III, then acting governor and perceived as the favorite for the Democratic nomination, went into the primary with about $900,000 raised. Eight years ago, at his political zenith, former governor Marvin Mandel raised close to $1 million for a campaign in an era when TV advertising cost a little more than half of what it costs now.

"Ideally, we'd like to make a buy in Baltimore and Washington but Washington is very, very expensive," said Paul Wingate, McGuirk's media adviser. "At least in Baltimore you can focus your advertising on one station because its ratings are so much higher than the other two. All we can do here in Washington though is react to what the campaign tells us to do."

As of yesterday afternoon, McGuirk still didn't know what he would tell Wingate to do. "It depends on how we do with money the next few days," he said.

"We'll probably do a moderate buy for a few days that will cost about $50,000," said Hughes campaign manager Joseph M. Coale III. "I'm sure everybody would like to do a blitz but you can't always do that. You have to save as much as you can for the big fight. I think the economy is a very real reason why money is tight for everybody."

Hughes knows the importance of television. In 1978, with limited funds, he and Coale gambled and decided to do three commercials in February.

"Those commercials kept us afloat early," Coale said. "Even when we were in single figures in the polls people came up to us and said they had seen the commercials."

McGuirk, running an underdog campaign, has not had that foundation. His two 30-second spots will begin appearing seven days before the election. When he introduced Lt. Gov. Samuel W. Bogley as his running mate in June, McGuirk said he planned TV for July. But the money wasn't there in July.

Pascal had hoped to get on TV by June, before people left for summer vacations. He did not first appear until July. Now, he must go on TV right after the primary because the Republican National Committee will be polling then to see how close he is to Hughes.