When Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stephen H. Sachs heard that his campaign manager was describing this winter as the campaign's "Valley Forge," he laughed and said, "He's been saying that for two winters. When does it start to melt?"

Beneath the humorous veneer of Sachs' remark lies a troubling dilemma facing the two-term state attorney general as he nears a critical stage in his bid to become Maryland's 58th governor.

After months of scouring the state for votes at a pace that usually does not begin until the final lap of a campaign, Sachs' progress has been incremental at best in cutting the commanding lead shown in early polls by his elusive rival, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

Schaefer, who demonstrated his fund-raising prowess by collecting $1 million in a single muscle-flexing night in the fall, remains the colossus of state politics despite Sachs' best efforts to dent the mayor's armor.

Sachs is hoping that a $100-a-head fund raiser this afternoon will give his campaign a needed lift. Yet even with the $200,000 he hopes to raise at today's affair in suburban Baltimore, the going is expected to be rough.

Sachs supporters acknowledge that they will be heavily outspent by Schaefer.

By tonight, Sachs will have raised around $800,000, about half of what he plans to spend in the primary battle that ends Sept. 9.

But the attorney general's campaign has been spending heavily -- how much, campaign manager Blair Lee IV will not say -- to maintain an office and staff for the past two years.

"You never have enough money," Sachs said Thursday night during a campaign swing through Montgomery County.

"We'll have enough money to be at the table, though we're going to have to play our cards carefully, we're going to have to bid carefully, we're going to have to bluff carefully."

While conceding the hurdle of overcoming Schaefer's more than 2-to-1 lead in the latest newspaper polls, Sachs takes comfort that as recently as September, the Baltimore Sun had the mayor leading 5 to 1.

With 196 days to go before the Democratic primary, Sachs' immediate problem is chipping away at the mayor's lead to get within relative striking distance once Schaefer announces his candidacy, an event expected to take place sometime this spring.

The task is complicated by the mayor's strategy of staying aloof from the race until as late as possible. Although he has a campaign manager, a campaign headquarters and a campaign committee, the mayor -- in typical front-runner style -- refuses to acknowledge his candidacy publicly or respond to Sachs' parries.

Mark Wasserman, who recently left the mayor's executive staff to take charge of the campaign, said that Schaefer is "busy running a complex major city" and believes that "campaigns needn't be marathons . . . . The people of Maryland will hear his message, should he run, during the spring and summer."

To which Sachs replied: "He's not busy being mayor. He's all over the state doing what I'm doing but calling it something else. He campaigns like he governs -- in secret. The reason the mayor is not engaging in the debate is he doesn't know the issues and he thinks it will show."

Sachs' problem, said supporter Frank Gunther -- a friend of Schaefer's who has performed many volunteer tasks associated with Baltimore's renaissance -- "is that it's difficult to get a lot of public exposure. The mayor is incommunicado -- he's the invisible man. He's able to travel the state as a noncandidate."

Sachs and Lee say that they can successfully make the mayor's "evasiveness" an issue, a point disputed by many legislators who regard the race as all but over.

"There is a perception out there . . . that Steve Sachs will not be able to close the gap," said Del. Charles J. Ryan (D-Prince George's), a supporter of House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin until the speaker dropped out of the gubernatorial race.

Sachs "is starting to get into the position Ben was in. They will not be able to accomplish what they need to with the money they are raising."

Since the race became a two-man field, Sachs has described himself as more "uninhibited" because he can focus solely on Schaefer and make the contrast between what he calls "the two traditions" of Maryland politics represented by the two men.

He continues to hammer away at Schaefer's associations with former governor Marvin Mandel and his fund-raiser Irv Kovens, both of whom were convicted on racketeering and mail fraud charges in the late 1970s.

"I don't like true believers, so 'crusade' is not a word I like to use," said Sachs, "but it is a cause . . . . The prospect of an Annapolis that just becomes a trough at which the fat cats feed is really something worth fighting against, and that's the way I see this election. That's fun."

This week, the Sachs campaign put into operation a telephone bank and direct mail operation in Prince George's County, the beginning of an effort that will spread to all the major metropolitan counties.

The goal, said Lee, is to reach beyond the political "junkies" who he said Sachs has been courting for two years.

"We want to break through to the electorate and not just deal with the activists," said Lee.

"Sure, it's tough to keep on pushing when people are telling you what people in the office are saying to each other," said Lee of Sachs' underdog status. "But I've also been around long enough to know the wind currents of February won't be the same wind currents of July, August and September. A campaign that hasn't begun cannot be over."