For Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, last week's televised gubernatorial debate was a dream come true: By the time it was over, everyone was asleep. Hughes staffers have said all summer that for them the ideal campaign would be a yawner, since their man has a clear lead in the polls and all the advantages of incumbency. Anything that stirs interest in the campaign might get people to look at the alternatives.

That is why last Friday's debate was a perfect setup for Hughes. The organizers at WMAR-TV-Channel 2 here tried so hard to be fair and balanced that they ended up with a format that let the candidates say anything they wanted to and, more important, let them not say what they didn't want to.

All the questions were addressed to the three candidates: Hughes, State Sen. Harry J. McGuirk of Baltimore and Ocean City Mayor Harry Kelley. Each man had 90 seconds to answer, then each had 45 seconds for rebuttal.

That meant that if, for example, Hughes did not want to state his opposition to the death penalty during the telecast, he didn't have to. Even though the question on capital punishment began, "Please tell us your personal feelings on capital punishment," Hughes never told anyone. Later he said, "I forgot."

Unlikely.

Hughes was well-prepared for this debate. He was briefed by his staff for several hours Friday afternoon and a special makeup man was brought in to give him just that right gubernatorial coloring under the TV lights. The only snag in that plan was that the room the makeup man wanted to use hadn't been checked by Hughes' state troopers, and they didn't want the governor going in there.

The reason Hughes didn't talk about his personal feelings on the death penalty is that his polls show that opposition to it could hurt him since most Marylanders favor capital punishment.

What's more, Hughes knew that if he didn't answer the question there was nothing the four reporters on the panel could do about it since they were not allowed follow-up questions. So he blithely ducked the question, reverting to his old answer about dealing with each case on an individual basis, and moved smoothly along from there.

This is not to say that McGuirk was any more direct in his answers than Hughes. When the candidates were asked to say specifically what they would cut first from future budgets -- and what they absolutely would not cut -- they all went into sweeping generalities about how tough the future would be because of federal budget cuts. Not one candidate mentioned one specific budget item to be cut or preserved.

The difference was that while Hughes was looking for somnolence, McGuirk had to attack, had to be the aggressor. His opening statement, in which he accused Hughes of ignoring many of the state's problems, hinted at that kind of approach. But McGuirk never went any further. As soon as the questioning began, he went into his famous soft-shoe routine, acting almost as a conciliator rather than as an underdog who needed somehow to get people to pay attention.

Amazingly, on the question about the role of the lieutenant governor, cGuirk ignored Hughes' embarrassing four-year battle with Lt. Gov. Samuel W. Bogley, who is now McGuirk's running mate. In fact, when it was McGuirk's turn for rebuttal, the senator chose to jump on a Kelley remark about economic development, rather than point out that, again, Hughes had answered in sweeping generalities on the role of the No. 2 man in state government.

The four panelists had met before the debate to discuss the questions and had tried to couch them in terms that would force specific answers. In fact, before the questioning began, John Frece of United Press International, at the behest of the other panelists, asked the candidates to be specific in their answers.

That request was ignored.

And why not? Why should a politician put himself out on a limb unless he has to? It is easy to talk about responsibility to the public and airing of issues, but candidates run to get elected, not to be heroic.

Therefore, it is up to the people running the debates to force the politicians to answer questions directly. If that means follow-up questions, then follow-up questions should be allowed. That rebuttal is worthless was obvious Friday. Once, Hughes said simply that he had nothing to say in rebuttal.

Hughes found various and sundry excuses to avoid all debates in the primary except this one, and so far he has agreed firmly to only one debate in the general election.

Assuming that Hughes and Republican Robert A. Pascal are the nominees, three or four debates would be a nice way for voters to see their differences aired. Also, four hours of questioning as opposed to one hour might force the candidates to get specific in some of their answers.

Unlike McGuirk, whose back-room political training apparently prevented him from attacking last week, even though he could not afford not to, Pascal will shoot at Hughes from the hip. Hughes and his people know this. They also know that the more debates that are held, the more exposure Pascal will get. And that sharp exchanges between the two men could wake the voters up before Nov. 2. It will be interesting to see how many debates Hughes agrees to.

Stay tuned.