When Baltimore's most influential black ministers assembled recently at a downtown church to decide which Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate would receive their coveted endorsement, Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski wooed them by hosting a breakfast and Rep. Michael D. Barnes came early enough to lobby during lunch.

But as the candidates' forum got under way, one face was conspicuously absent. Where was Gov. Harry Hughes?

More than an hour later, Hughes and a red-faced staff member rushed in, explaining with embarrassment that the governor's invitation had been lost. When Hughes realized the mistake, the aide said, he jumped into his Lincoln and sped from Annapolis to Baltimore for the gathering.

The episode is a metaphor for the setbacks that have plagued Hughes' bid to capture the Democratic Senate nomination in the statewide primary Sept. 9. Struggling to break out of the shadow cast by the 14-month-old savings and loan crisis, which by his own account has marred his 30-year career in public office, Hughes now confronts another enemy: a campaign that even his loyal supporters characterize as disorganized and uninspired.

With less than seven weeks remaining in the race, Hughes is flat in the polls. His campaign has failed as yet to make the two-term governor, one of the best-known and once one of the most popular politicians in the state, the formidable candidate he was originally expected to be.

A politician who is low-key by nature, Hughes, 59, disagrees with this evaluation of his standing in the race, and holds out hope that he can still win the election by following his current strategy. Asked recently about problems in his campaign, he replied with uncharacteristic sharpness: "I simply do not agree with that. I simply do not agree. I believe the campaign is being run fine."

Several political indicators suggest otherwise:Hughes, the best-known and, until the savings and loan crisis, one of the most popular figures in the state, now finds himself stagnant in statewide polls. He is consistently battling for second place with Barnes, a four-term House member from Montgomery County who is making his first try for statewide office. Favored by about 20 percent of potential Democratic voters, he is far behind front-runner Mikulski, the Baltimore Democrat who is supported by 48 percent, according to a Washington Post poll last month. Hughes remains the statewide candidate with the highest negative image among voters, according to the Post poll, with 37 percent of Democrats in June giving him an unfavorable rating. In fund raising he badly trails both Barnes and Mikulski, who each have raised more than $800,000. Campaign finance reports filed for the quarter ending June 30 showed that Hughes has raised a total of about $417,000. The reports also showed that Hughes' recent media campaign left him virtually without cash on June 30. However, his campaign aides said he has raised about $40,000 in the past three weeks. Key endorsements have eluded him. The black ministers, for example, voiced appreciation of his record on civil rights and education, but endorsed Barnes. The Maryland State Teachers' Association also endorsed Barnes. And the state's local labor organizations are almost evenly divided between Barnes and Mikulski.

Many of the governor's closest supporters also are critical of the role played in the campaign by Hughes' wife, Patricia, who according to critics has acted as an unofficial campaign manager this year and in his successful races in the past. Critics said her decisions about Hughes' schedule and strategy have contributed to an atmosphere of disarray.

"I am not totally convinced that he has run the best campaign it is possible to run," said Nathan Landow, a Bethesda developer and nationally prominent Democratic fund-raiser who has been one of Hughes' leading financial backers. "I think he should have had more professional advice than he is getting. I think there is room for improvement."

Landow said one of the problems is that Patricia Hughes has overturned decisions made by the governor's top paid political advisers. She declined several requests for comment, but said through the governor's spokesman that "she believes the campaign is going well."

However, Michael Canning, a Hughes appointee to the Maryland Tax Court and a key aide in previous Hughes campaigns, bluntly disagreed. "I do not believe his is a formidable campaign, and I think it lacks direction and oomph," he said.

Hughes' political prospects seemed so bleak before the June 30 deadline for declaring his candidacy in Maryland that speculation surfaced in political circles that he was about to drop out. Perhaps to mute such speculation, Hughes called Barnes and, according to sources in both campaigns, told him adamantly that he intended to remain in the race.

That talk of his demise is grist for this year's political rumor mill comes as something of a surprise to Hughes and his supporters, who think of the former minor league pitcher as a politician with a knack for coming through in the clutch. A legislator who later became Maryland's transportation secretary, Hughes launched his first statewide race for governor in 1978 as the darkest of dark horses who was ridiculed by one legislative leader as a "lost ball in high grass."

Hughes, whose political style has always been placid and colorless by State House standards, went on to win that election -- and his next -- by the largest margins recorded in Maryland history.

Hughes and most of his longtime supporters believe that absent the thrifts crisis, which angered thousands of depositors whose assets were frozen for months, the Democratic nomination would be his for the asking.

Hughes opened the campaign season recognizing that the thrifts crisis was his major liability, and he developed a three-pronged strategy to capture the Democratic nomination.

First, he has tried to neutralize the voters' negative impressions of his handling of the savings and loans issue by portraying it, in speeches and on television commercials, as an achievement rather than a setback.

Second, he has attempted to carve out a role as a "moderate" alternative to Barnes and Mikulski, whom Hughes believes to be more liberal than most Maryland voters.

Third, he has followed a strategy he used successfully in 1982, when he tried to get voters to associate him with the most popular programs of his administration, such as the Chesapeake Bay cleanup and increased funding for education.

To some extent, the strategy has begun to pay off. The angriest savings and loan depositors, who for months shadowed Hughes' public appearances carrying signs such as "Back Door Harry is Dead Meat," have largely disappeared from view.

The Post poll also showed that in June more Democratic voters -- 39 percent -- approved of his handling of the thrifts crisis, compared with 28 percent in March.

Among at least a handful of former doubters, Hughes' effort to take a moderate position on issues has struck a chord. Del. Paul Muldowney, a conservative Democrat from Washington County in western Maryland and a frequent Hughes antagonist in the legislature, recently endorsed him, saying, "I think his campaign is beginning to blossom here, and maybe it's the philosophy of his approach."

Sen. Clarence Blount (D-Baltimore), the respected majority leader of the state Senate and a key black supporter, has agreed to speak out for Hughes because of his record. "When I look at all three from a black perspective, I have to take Hughes," Blount said. "The other two can only say what they will do, but this man has done it."

And, his campaign advisers believe, time is still on his side. "Most people have not focused on the race . . . . We'll see him moving up," said campaign manager Andy Wigglesworth. "The governor has been out campaigning vigorously. He gets a good reception wherever he goes.