The way Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert A. Pascal sees it, one thing stands between him and the Maryland State House: the Washington suburbs. Time and again he has told people, "If I do well in Washington, I win the election."

But veteran Maryland politicians say that with those very words Pascal reveals himself as someone who doesn't understand what it takes to succeed as a statewide candidate in this area.

"You can't come in and think of the area as Washington," said former Republican senator J. Glenn Beall Jr., who ran statewide three times in Maryland. "You have to realize that even though Prince George's and Montgomery counties are in the same media market, they are remarkably different places with totally different voting patterns and voters. A lot of candidates never get a handle on the area because they don't understand that."

Most candidates for governor or senator in Maryland have a Baltimore orientation, and like Pascal, view the Washington area as one entity, very separate from the rest of the state. In many ways it is.

"We're totally disembodied from the rest of the state," said longtime Prince George's political adviser and pollster John McDonough. "The best way to sum it up is this: People from Maryland root for the Baltimore Colts. We root for the Redskins."

But outside of the Redskins, the two suburban counties have little in common. Montgomery is a politician's nightmare, bursting with civic activists, volatile voters and political factions. It is difficult to peg what Montgomery will do in a given election year, although most of the time it will go with a liberal candidate, the one who appears to best represent "good government."

Prince George's is far more traditional, not in the big-city Baltimore sense where the Democratic clubs rule, but in that the Democratic organization, even in its splintered 1982 form, is very powerful.

"The only way to succeed in the Washington area is to avoid Montgomery and work your butt off in Prince George's," said one politican veteran. "In Montgomery you're going to have to fend off the activists constantly, go to a million forums and have every volunteer wanting to write position papers for you. It's not worth it. Frankly, it's a pain in the butt."

Montgomery politicians understand the frustrations outsiders have with their county. "A lot of outsiders look at Montgomery as some kind of annex of the moon," said Blair Lee IV, whose father used a Montgomery political base to become Maryland's lieutenent governor (and later served as acting governor). "They tend to throw their hands up over Montgomery and just let it take care of itself. What do you say about a county that in the same year went for Ted Kennedy in a primary and Ronald Reagan in a general election?"

Lee, who is legislative liaison for Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist and the comanager of Gov. Harry Hughes' campaign in the county, added, "It's a difficult county to figure. You need to be liberal to win the Democratic primary and moderate to win the general. That can be a tough combination."

By contrast, Prince George's elections are almost always decided in the Democratic primary. Unlike Montgomery, there is no Republican organization to speak of. Yet, Prince George's Democrats, especially in the blue-collar areas, are more likely to cross party lines and vote Republican.

"We are going to carry every single precinct in this county for Hughes and Sen. Paul Sarbanes," said Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller, head of the county's state Senate delegation. "We may have lost some people in the 1980 presidential election but we have gotten them back this year."

To Democratic incumbents Hughes and Sarbanes, that means peace of mind. "In '76 we had to go into P.G. with our own organization," said one Sarbanes staff member. "This year we've just left it to the boys down there."

The first stop in Prince George's for a Democratic candidate running for statewide office would be Miller's office. Curly-haired and gregarious, with a fondness for plaid jackets, Miller, 39, has emerged as the key political mover in the county.

Miller stepped into a void created by the semiretirement of longtime Democratic strategist Peter F. O'Malley and the withdrawal from the day-to-day decision-making by 5th District Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the man Miller succeeded as the leader of the state Senate delegation.

Nonetheless, stopping in to pay homage to Hoyer and O'Malley is still considered advisable, especially since Miller leans on both heavily for advice. Pascal did this in his first forays into the county. State Sen. Harry J. McGuirk, Hughes' primary opponent, did not, a decision that reportedly surprised and slightly miffed the two men.

Hughes began courting Miller last fall, when Miller asked for help in the reapportionment battle. When Miller, O'Malley and Hoyer ardently asked for a judgeship for state Sen. John J. Garrity, whose seat was lost in reapportionment, Hughes gave it to them -- after months of dickering and wavering.

"He took his time but Harry Hughes helped us when we needed his help this year," Miller said. "We had an obligation to him when it got to be election time."

That obligation was paid off by seven senators' endorsement of Hughes. That meant that Hughes' name appeared on all their sample ballots, that they handled all his scheduling when he campaigned in the county and that McDonough, the state Senate slate's campaign manager became, in effect, Hughes' Prince George's campaign manager.

"One thing about us," said Hoyer, "when we support you, we support you, even if we've had disagreements with you. We don't just hand out three ballots and call that support."

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Lawrence J. Hogan's potential strength should come from Prince George's, where, despite a 3-to-1 Democratic advantage in registration, he was three times elected to Congress and once as county executive. Yet, recent polls show him trailing Sarbanes in Prince George's.

"He's run a classic Republican campaign here but that isn't how he's succeeded in the past," said a local Republican. "He's succeeded by being different, by being independent. Now, he's not and it will cost him."

This year, for the first time, Republicans have tried to woo black voters in Prince George's, where they make up about 37 percent of the population.

"We're starting to get black candidates and a black nucleus, but it takes a long time," said Allan C. Levey, the state GOP chairman. "Black voters are just used to voting for Democrats. But you have to start somewhere."

The old perception of Prince George's was that its residents were a mix of lower- and middle-income whites, who were wooed by candidates, and lower-income blacks, who were largely ignored by politicians on the theory that their loyalties remained in Washington, from where many had been pushed out by urban renewal, and therefore they did not vote in large numbers in their new locations.

But a politician who continues to hold that view would be in as much trouble as Pascal viewing the Washington suburbs as a single entity. In the September primary, half of all registered black voters in the county voted, a figure much higher than for whites.

State Sen. Tommie Broadwater Jr., the county's only black senator and leader of the county's black politicians, predicts the black turnout on Nov. 2 will reach 65 percent.

"Part of it is education," said Broadwater, whose influence has spread beyond his own legislative district. "We've worked hard to get people registered but also to make sure they find out about the issues once they are registered."

Much of the county remains home to blue-collar or middle-level government workers, plus a few rural traces. But there are widening pockets of affluence -- a section of Broadwater's district includes some of the most expensive housing in the county -- and neighborhoods that border on Montgomery tend to look and vote like eastern Montgomery: Liberal.

One night in August, before a small audience at one of those notorious forums, Montgomery County Executive Gilchrist spoke about the importance of having local political leaders who are linked with the state Democratic leaders, about the advantages of having office holders who were close to the incumbent Democrats around the state.

"We got killed," said one Gilchrist aide. "You try to talk party in Montgomery and people will castigate you. Charlie hadn't sat down before the moderator, who was for us, said, 'Of course, in Montgomery we vote for the man and not the party.' "

The pride Montgomery voters take in being different, in being involved every step of the way, in somehow knowing more than voters in the rest of the state, makes it the bane of a statewide candidate's existence.

"You have to start very early if you want to get anything done in Montgomery no matter which party you're from," said state Sen. Victor L. Crawford, the retiring head of the county's Senate delegation. "You have to come in here and get the opinion-makers on your side early. Then, they can spread the word. But it's a slow process."

Because registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in Montgomery, it is easy to overlook the fact that Montgomery is one of the key GOP strongholds in the state. But it is home to 25 percent of all registered Republicans in Maryland, and the county's GOP organization, led by central committee Chairman Paul Clark, is considered the most effective in the state.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Pascal made wooing Montgomery voters an early priority. He chose his running mate, former congressman Newton I. Steers, from there and pledged to campaign there constantly. And he sought to pattern himself after incumbent U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, a moderate Republican who has always been successful in the county. Yet the big money that Montgomery Republicans can produce has not been forthcoming for the Pascal campaign.

"He hurt himself early," said one Republican. "He came in here to speak and told them they should give him money because 'you all make $100,000 a year anyway.' People don't like to be taken for granted."

But as Prince George's is changing, so is Montgomery. Mixed in with what Miller calls the "limousine liberals" in the western half, including Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Potomac -- where Republicans compete on equal terms with Democrats -- are a growing number of working class Democrats: Irish-Catholic oldtimers and black newcomers, along with a large bloc of solidly liberal Jewish Democrats in the eastern half.

The Silver Spring-Takoma Park area also has a growing Spanish-speaking population, but many of those newcomers are not yet voters. The biggest difference between Montgomery and Prince George's is the black population. Blacks make up only 8 percent of Montgomery's population, compared to about 37 percent in Prince George's. And like the whites in the two counties, Montgomery blacks tend to be affluent.

The other difference is in registration. Prince George's has 225,000 registered voters out of a population of658,000. Montgomery has 318,000 registered voters in a population of 590,000.

The final difference is in the influence wielded by local politicians. "In Prince George's, if you are a Democrat, what you want to do is get out the vote on election day," said Rep. Hoyer. "If you've got the politicians, they'll get the vote out for you and, assuming you've had your media, you'll probably win.

"In Montgomery, it's harder. You have to get our your vote. That means you have to identify who your people are, not just who the Democrats are. The politicians can't or sometimes won't deliver that for you. And, even if they do work for you, there are no guarantees."