During the cocktail reception before lunch, the two candidates for governor of Maryland stood on opposite sides of the room, separated by 20 feet and dozens of businessmen. At lunch, seated together at the head table, they avoided eye contact. And during the speeches, Gov. Harry Hughes and Republican challenger Robert A. Pascal confined themselves to the chosen topic of this Chamber of Commerce forum -- economic development.

But as the event, the first joint appearance since last week's party primaries, drew to a close with audience questions, the two men finally focused exclusively on each other, allowing the testiness that has been building between them to surface.

"Governor, you didn't stay on the subject," said a broadly smiling Pascal, slightly interrupting Hughes as he answered a question about the state's business climate as compared to Delaware and Virginia.

Hughes, also smiling: "I learned that from you." Pascal, after a pause: "That's good, that's good . . . that you learn from me." Hughes: "So far that's the only thing I've learned from you."

(Pause) Pascal: "Slow learner." Pascal's wife Nancy smiled as the crowd of several hundred executives oohed and the moderator suggested that the event was over. But Hughes had the last word: "This could go on and on . . . ."

And likely it will, as Hughes, the Democratic incumbent and Pascal, the Anne Arundel County executive, face each other in dozens of public forums in a scramble for the statehouse that will end in six weeks, on Nov. 2.

Today's luncheon, sponsored by the politically potent Greater Baltimore Committee and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, demonstrated that the two contenders are not as far apart on substance as they are on style and timing.

Both said they would push for dredging of the Port of Baltimore, a $300 million project that has been stalled by the federal government; both said they support tax incentives to help businesses stay in Maryland; both spoke of the need to attract high technology firms to the state; both talked about the need for new jobs and worker retraining programs.

Pascal attacked Hughes for acting too slowly. He said Hughes had let slip too many opportunities to bring in new businesses, had not helped the industries at the port enough and he had failed to live up to a 1978 campaign promise to substantially beef up the state's tourism budget.

Without explaining how he would enact some proposals, Pascal said he would set up a $100 million business jobs fund to insure low-interest bank loans for businesses that want to expand or modernize, and push to make coastal industries, such as ocean fisheries, a major part of Maryland's economy.

Hughes, who has had mixed relations with the state's business community, painted a picture of economic health in Maryland under his administration. He pointed to the state's high bond rating, 14,000 new jobs, a balanced budget without general fund tax increases, and repeal of $45 million in several business taxes. Hughes also mentioned his push to create business enterprise zones -- low tax areas -- to revive depressed local economies and his successes in wooing Japanese and California high technology firms.

At the same time, Hughes indirectly addressed business complaints that he has been too low key, saying he was somewhat inexperienced when first elected but is not like that any more. "I felt like the new kid on the block four years ago . . . Well, let me tell you something about this new kid . . . He isn't so new anymore. And the people who live on the block know it."