You don't need a calendar to know when there's an election approaching in Maryland. All you need do is watch Gov. Harry Hughes.

Nineteen months before the 1986 Democratic primary, in which he is widely expected to seek the nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Charles McC. Mathias Jr., Hughes is popping up all over. As he did before his 1982 reelection campaign, the man who has made quiet governance his trademark is once again making noise.

Thus it seemed hardly an accident when Hughes departed from his text during his annual State of the State address Jan. 16 to name, one by one, the people he has appointed to direct his Institute for the Prevention and Control of Violence and Extremism.

This was not the first time that Hughes has touted the extremism and violence institute, to which he has allocated $600,000 over three years. Last fall, the governor's press office nearly begged reporters to attend a press conference called to announce that former U.S. senator Birch Bayh was being named to head the institute.

That one was a double whammy for Hughes. At the same time, he proclaimed Oct. 6 Raoul Wallenberg Day to recognize the Swedish hero's efforts to rescue Jews from the Nazi holocaust during World War II.

As laudable as all that may seem, there is considerable cynicism in Annapolis that Hughes is more interested in courting the Jewish vote than in preventing misguided individuals from spray-painting swastikas on synagogues.

Throwing $200,000 a year at sociologists looking for work is not going to end intolerance, State Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery) suggested the other day. Denis can be dismissed as a Republican seeking partisan shots at Hughes, but he is Jewish.

So it was also that Hughes became a born-again dredger last week. Dredging Baltimore's shipping channel, a project that many feel is vital to keeping the economy of the port healthy, has never been at the top of Hughes' list of priorities. He has always been skeptical of the "dredge or die" mentality.

"Hughes doesn't give a damn about dredging," said one legislator last week.

But you couldn't tell that from the flurry of activity on the second floor of the State House last week, when word began to leak out of a plan to have the state finance half the $330 million cost of the project. The financing scheme was the brainchild of state Department of Transportation Secretary William Hellmann, who worked closely with House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin to come up with a package that would be acceptable to the legislature.

The dredging proposal was to be announced on Thursday with considerable ballyhoo. Hughes was to present it to the Maryland congressional delegation during a courtesy call to Capitol Hill while Hellmann and Cardin jointly offered it up to a House committee in Annapolis.

The plan went awry, however, when the word started getting around on Tuesday. Fearing that Cardin would get too much of the credit, the administration quickly drummed up an announcement. Not surprisingly, the press release began thusly: "Governor Harry Hughes today reaffirmed Maryland's commitment to the Baltimore Harbor . . . ."

"It wasn't theirs," said Del. Eileen Rehrmann (D-Harford), a member of the House subcommittee that oversees transportation funding. "The governor hasn't had any initiatives on funding dredging."

And then there is the matter of Hughes' recent television appearances touting campaigns to end child abuse, to buy smoke detectors and to keep businesses in Maryland. All good causes, but all conveniently timed to enhance his visibility, the critics maintain. And also produced by the same firm that did the governor's reelection campaign ads in 1982.

Responding to a question about those criticisms at a recent press conference, Hughes said: "Over the years I have sometimes been characterized and sometimes criticized as being too low-key, and it's really ironic that now that I have done some public announcing on TV commercials to prevent child abuse, to get people to buy smoke detectors and save lives and to create jobs in Maryland that I get some criticism for it."

Fair enough. But the flip side is also true. When you make a career out of appearing nonpolitical, you're going to get some heat when you jump into the game shortly before an election.