The Maryland Republican Party is a suitor without a date as it searches for a GOP candidate to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.).

Montgomery County Republican Gilbert Gude was the most recent of at least nine flirtations, ranging from the casual to the serious.

"If I thought there was a chance he would run, I'd get down on my hands and knees and beg him myself," state Sen. Howard A. Denis said of his Montgomery colleague.

Mathias' departure was viewed as a blow to Republican hopes for keeping control of the Senate. Republicans have a 53-to-47 margin, meaning that Democrats are just four seats short of recapturing control. Mathias was the fourth Republican senator to announce his retirement. Two Democrats also are retiring.

Denis' declaration was prompted by the news last week that Gude was retiring after a decade as head of the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress. Within minutes of Gude's announcement to his research staff, hopeful GOP officials were on the phone. Before joining CRS, Gude had been a popular Montgomery County congressman and a moderate Republican in the same mold as Mathias.

But a few hours later, Gude was also on the phones, assuring everyone that his retirement had nothing to do with political ambitions. He simply wants to write a book about small town life along the Potomac River.

Thus, Gude joined a growing list of potential Senate candidates who have told the state GOP: Thanks but no thanks.

Part of the reason for the apparent lack of interest by Republicans in the Maryland Senate seat -- a post that at least three Democrats are scrambling for -- is that Democrats hold a 3-to-1 registration advantage in the state.

That means that being a Republican candidate for a statewide office in Maryland can be a lonely and high-risk endeavor. Mathias was the Maryland GOP's most popular officeholder, and few Republicans were grooming themselves to fill his place.

"The fact is, we had nobody even thinking about it until September, when Mac decided not to run," said Republican state Chairman Allan C. Levey.

"Nobody wanted to believe he was going to pull out," said Rep. Helen D. Bentley, a Baltimore County Republican.

Maryland Republicans first turned a hopeful eye to former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. Her only tie to Maryland was a suburban Washington address, but she was a national figure with a widely recognized name, and party officials quickly proposed. Earlier in the year, she had said only that she would not run against Mathias, leaving many to believe she was leaving the door open for GOP entreaties. But within a week of Mathias' retirement announcement, she said she was not interested at all.

The next rumors that surfaced were about George Will, a well-known columnist with ties to the Reagan White House and a Maryland address. The rumors reached such a frenzy that the Washington Times wrote an editorial, pleading with Will not to "retreat into the domed nut house on Capitol Hill" and give up the influence he has as a conservative columnist.

But Will abruptly stopped those rumors. "No! No! No! No! What do we have to say to convince you people he is not interested?" his secretary said to an inquiring reporter.

Next, Brooks Robinson, a former Baltimore Orioles third baseman, got a call from national Republicans. Would he be interested in the Senate race? Robinson soon said no. "That was just a 24-hour affair," said Levey.

Maryland Republicans also briefly fantasized about former Colts quarterback John Unitas, poultry executive Frank Perdue and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, none of whom indicated any interest.

"When you're drowning, you reach for straws," said Del. John Leopold, a Republican from Anne Arundel County.

Donald Devine, former head of the federal Office of Personnel Management, was mentioned. But some worried that his nomination might be controversial because of the cutbacks he supported in the federal work force.

Others worried about the fact that he had withdrawn his renomination to OPM after a colleague testified at a Senate hearing that Devine had asked her to lie about one of his controversial actions at OPM. Devine said in September that he might be interested in the Senate seat, but Levey said that state party officials have heard nothing further.

Levey says that Republicans are not discouraged. Others are still thinking about the race, including former U.S. attorney George Beall; Linda Chavez, White House public liaison director; Kingdon Gould, developer and former ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg; Jan Scruggs, Vietnam Veterans Memorial founder, and state Del. Thomas Mooney of Prince George's, a former Democrat who switched to the Republican Party this fall.

In addition, E. Brooke Lee, a mayoral candidate in Washington in 1982, has formally announced.

Beall, who appears to have strong support among many GOP officials, has said he probably will not make a decision until early next year. Chavez has been meeting with many Maryland Republicans, and they expect her to announce her decision in a couple of weeks. Gould is out of the country, but he has said he will make a decision by mid-December, according to Levey.

Scruggs has been talking to GOP officials about the Senate seat. And Leopold, the Anne Arundel delegate who ran for governor of Hawaii in 1978, said he is considering the Senate race.

"It's an ideal opportunity for the right kind of Republican candidate," said Leopold. He predicted that there would be a fractious Democratic primary, which could benefit a moderate Republican.

Bentley agreed. "We're not dead yet," she said.