For months, U.S. Senate candidate Donald P. Hutchinson has been almost proud to pin himself with the underdog label. In his travels around Maryland, the Baltimore County executive has made a point of recounting tales of previous uphill election battles, battles that have ended happily for him.

But these days Hutchinson is growing more sensitive on the subject, after recent surveys of the crowded Democratic primary for the Senate seat show him a distant fourth. Polls show Rep. Barbara Mikulski, the current front-runner, surpassing Hutchinson in his own home base, and a combination of national events and the General Assembly session have given opponents Rep. Michael D. Barnes and Gov. Harry Hughes an acknowledged leg up on coveted media exposure.

Thus, Hutchinson has changed his approach. "I don't classify myself as an underdog or a front-runner," he said today. "Everybody's equal in April, and the only poll that counts is the one that takes place in the fall" election.

Hutchinson is taking a crucial step to improve his standing by hosting his first major fund-raiser today on a cruise ship docked in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

He and his supporters hope the funds he raises at his $100-per-plate party tonight, coupled with a smaller $500-per-couple event at the Baltimore Museum of Art earlier this week, will provide him enough money to make a badly needed improvement in his name recognition around the state.

Campaign spokesman Bob Hughes said, "I think it will show the degree of support Don has. It will show that he is a viable candidate. Just the stature of the event is going to catapult him back."

Hutchinson said that his supporters have purchased about 670 tickets in advance of the fund-raiser, and that he had to stop selling tickets because the boat where the party will be held will be filled to capacity. Hutchinson said that the two events this week will raise about $140,000, of which he will get to keep all but about $10,000. If his estimates prove accurate, the events will put his campaign treasury over the $300,000 mark.

That figure is likely to keep him competitive with his opponents in fund raising, although Mikulski and Barnes have been far more successful in wooing support from political action committees, individuals and out-of-state groups.

The money also will give him about a third of the $1 million he and the other candidates estimate that they each will need to mount an effective campaign.

His campaign managers and his supporters say all Hutchinson really needs is an effective platform from which he can get across his views, which they characterize as more appropriate to the opinions of most Marylanders than those of his opponents.

"If his message becomes clearly articulated, I think he's got a shot. I think he's the most moderate of the candidates," said Del. Eileen Rehrmann, a Democrat from Harford County, which is part of the central, western and eastern Maryland bloc that Hutchinson identified as his base.

"I think his support is going to be very solid because people identify with the more conservative attitudes he brings to the race," she said.

But others, even those who admire Hutchinson, are not sure that will be enough.

"I like the guy, but he's got to move," said Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat who leads Prince George's County's powerful state Senate delegation.

Miller, whose own views are moderate to conservative, said he is inclined to support the more liberal Mikulski, in part because she is showing strength as a front-runner and in part because her presence on a statewide ticket would provide "balance" because she is a woman.

Miller said of Hutchinson, "Although he's been the chief executive of a major county in the state, he's simply not known. I don't think he's in the running to the same degree."