Pity poor Tom Mooney. The GOP's gubernatorial candidate sat at the head table with the other statewide contenders at the party's annual spring meeting last weekend only to hear Rep. Helen Bentley declare that he had already lost the race.

"This is one of those unusual situations where the man who's going to win hasn't even announced yet," said Bentley of -- who else? -- Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer. The mayor created a stir several weeks ago when he passed up his own Democratic party's fund-raiser to attend one of Bentley's. Schaefer did not formally announce his candidacy until Monday.

That didn't stop Mooney, a Prince George's delegate and recent Republican convert, from giving a plea for his adoptive party's backing anyway. He also fired a shot at Schaefer, saying he has "flip-flopped more times than a pancake on a hot griddle."

Mooney vowed not to be intimidated by the state's dominant Democratic party, which Mooney labled the "party of Walter Mondale and Lyndon LaRouche."

Mooney earned a standing ovation for his efforts. A number of party activists called it a good speech, all the more noteworthy since many of them consider Mooney a good-natured but foolhardy sacrificial lamb.

That was only one of the twists and turns of the proceedings as the GOP met to work out party business and hear from candidates.

Party regulars are preparing for an election in which the Republican Party could conceivably maintain its hold on one U.S. Senate seat and capture another congressional seat in the Montgomery County-based 8th District.

But they expended more energy haggling over internal disputes than reveling in and planning for their election-year opportunities.

"We have such a golden opportunity, and instead of letting the Democrats defeat us, we are defeating ourselves," said Joyce Terhes, the state central committee's first vice chairwoman. She was the center of one internecine squabble over whether she should be allowed to perform paid consulting work and still hold her party seat. "We always shoot ourselves in the foot," Terhes said.

In some ways, however, individual hostilities laid open at the convention were reflective of a larger struggle for control within the state party. It is a contest that has shaped up between the far right and moderates, between lifelong party stalwarts and aggressive newcomers, and between ideological purists and pragmatists who want to extend the party's influence.

The struggle for control of the party is especially evident in the Senate race, once the despair of state party leaders who feared they would not be able to hold onto the seat after the popular incumbent, Charles McC. Mathias, retires.

But eight individuals have announced or indicated a desire to fill the seat, including former White House aide Linda Chavez, former U.S. senator J. Glenn Beall and "constitutionalist" Nicholas Nonnenmacher, who is running on a platform involving a constitutional amendment to guarantee the legality of school prayer.

Each is claiming, in the words of another candidate, George Haley, to be "the one who can and will win."

Haley and Chavez, among others, say they can win by broadening the party, something that ought to be desirable to the Maryland GOP, which is badly outnumbered by the state's Democrats.

But even that is controversial in the Maryland Republican party, where so-called ideological purists want the party to remain the stronghold of those who pass conservative litmus tests.

"I honestly don't think they care about winning elections," said one key moderate party official. "I think all they care about is keeping the party pure."

Nevertheless, even many moderates have been piqued by the rapid rise of some recent converts, particularly Chavez, whom they describe as spending more time wooing potential Democratic votes than wooing the party faithful.

"Her problem is she thinks she's running for president," sniffed the moderate official, who nevertheless likes Chavez.

Brian Berry, head of the Maryland Young Republicans, called it "unfortunate" that few of the delegates attending the spring convention are playing key roles in the campaigns of either Chavez or Richard Sullivan, a former business executive who makes a point of comparing his 22 years as a Maryland resident with Chavez's two.

But Berry added that until county organizations and other grass-roots Republican groups become more active at raising money and getting out the vote, GOP candidates will have to continue to look outside the party if they want to win.

Berry has helped recently to create a conservative organization called "Marylanders for a Free State," which plans to try to recruit conservatives to the state legislature and to run the party. Berry said the new group will invigorate the GOP, but others say it will further narrow its appeal.

In the meantime, the Republicans continued to sound like the beleaguered underdogs.

"I thought I deserved a rest this year, but the Democrats decided to send in the money machine," said Bentley, referring to her Democratic opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Bentley also said that House Minority leader Robert Neall has the same problem, "running against a Democratic money machine, only this one bounces a ball." Neall is running against former Bullets basketball player Tom McMillen, who has raised large sums from out-of-state contributors.

Neall, asked how he was doing, replied, "As well as I can."