An early warning of the antagonisms that marked the Maryland Republican Party's two-day spring convention here came when aides for two competing U.S. Senate candidates went head to head over crucial wall space for signs.

"Pillars had to be divided. Somebody put up a sign, somebody else would take it down," said Richard Sullivan, one of the GOP's top contenders to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. Tom Olson, campaign manager of former White House aide Linda Chavez, another leading candidate, said the competition became so keen that a few elbows were thrust.

Finally the state party's executive director was forced to step in and negotiate an agreement Friday.

It was just the beginning of the intense intramural antagonisms plaguing Maryland's GOP. And the infighting comes despite the Republican leadership's desire for a show of unity at a time when the party is faced both with the loss of Mathias, its chief standard-bearer, and the opportunity to make new inroads against the dominant Democrats, who outnumber registered Republicans by almost 3 to 1 in Maryland.

A bitter squabble broke out over whether a party official should be allowed to work as a paid consultant to Sullivan, and another protracted debate developed over who should fill a vacant third vice chairmanship.

Despite the hours spent here resolving the series of petty disputes, Republicans said they were buoyed by a number of optimistic developments: the prospect of rancorous Democratic primaries for the Senate and the 8th Congressional District seats, potentially strong Republican candidates for the Senate and other races, and the Democratic Party's potential vulnerability in the lingering savings and loans crisis.

"There is one issue out there that was made to order for the Republican Party . . ., " said Rep. Helen Bentley, a Baltimore County Republican who spoke at lunch today. "It was the Democratic Party who was in charge of the state at every level when the S&L scandal broke. This is the one thing Republican candidates need to use."

That strategy appeared to gain broad acceptance among the 250 delegates attending the meeting at a hotel in the resort community here. A Rockville lawyer appointed by the GOP as its special counsel to investigate the thrift crisis received several rousing rounds of applause.

Much of today's activities served to showcase the party's Senate candidates.

Chavez used the opportunity to reiterate her themes about the need to return "moral values" to the classroom, for sterner treatment of criminals, a tough national defense and welfare reform and jobs.

Sullivan, formerly a Baltimore hand-tool company executive, also stressed economic development, but pointedly noted he is the only candidate with "real experience" in business.

George Haley, a Silver Spring lawyer and former Nixon appointee who jumped into the race last week, touted his experience in the federal bureaucracy and his ability to attract Democratic support as the only black candidate.

Nicholas Nonnenmacher, a former congressional aide and consignment shop owner who quietly entered the race two weeks ago, also spoke at the convention on his proposal to introduce a constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to school prayer.