Presidential candidate George S. McGovern traveled only a short distance to appear at the Woman's Suburban Democratic Club in Rockville yesterday, but those few miles took him far back into his past.

Almost 12 years ago to the day, the liberal Democrat and former South Dakota senator was an underdog running for president of the United States. Today it is the same. Then, as now, he was received enthusiastically by the members of the club. Then, as now, he identified himself as the "antiwar, full-employment candidate."

But this time, there was a significant twist. In November 1971 the members heard what he had to say and joined his campaign, members recalled yesterday. In 1983, they applauded his liberal agenda, but few among the 80 or so lunch guests said they would join his crusade again.

As Janette Getz, a diehard McGovern worker in 1971, said after today's luncheon: "He said all the things I wanted to hear--but I don't think he can win. Mondale is saying most of the things I want to hear and I'm a supporter of his."

The feeling that he is a "fringe" candidate didn't seem to faze McGovern, who has not yet put together a campaign organization in Maryland (or most states). Even when he does, most of the state's political leaders and activists have already committed to former vice president Walter F. Mondale or Ohio Sen. John Glenn, in what has become a heated, two-person primary contest.

"That the fringes is where I was until the Iowa caucus last time in 1971 ," he said. "The highest I got in the polls was 4 percent. Now I'm at around 10 percent. The question is whether we're going to raise enough funds to really mount an effective campaign."

According to Mary McGovern, who is helping run her father's campaign, the campaign has raised about $50,000. It needs to raise $5,000 in contributions of $250 or less in each of at least 20 states to become eligible for federal matching funds.

McGovern said when he announced six weeks ago that he decided to seek the presidency once again to provide a forum for issues that he considered important and felt would not be raised by the other candidates.

During his speech yesterday, he outlined an agenda for the presidency that included ending military involvement in Central America, Beirut and Grenada, putting into effect a nuclear freeze, canceling the Reagan administration tax cuts in favor of a more simplified income tax such as the flat tax proposal of Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), and immediately implementing the Equal Rights Amendment.

He termed Reagan's televised speech Thursday night "a formula for military adventurism" and said that the decision to invade Grenada "flagrantly defies international law."

McGovern said yesterday that he will drop out of the presidential race this time if he does not finish among the top four Democrats during the first three primary contests--the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary and the Massachusetts primary.