This is a story of how a 28-year-old man who once spent $3,000 of other people's money seeking a seat on his local Democratic central committee and lost -- badly -- found success and respect in the political arena.

It is the story of how this man, armed with a degree in political science, a few graduate-level statistics courses and more moxie than experience, convinced skeptical editors, candidates and interest groups that they would be wise to pay thousands to have him and his friends read their numbers.

This is the story of Brad Coker and the soul of a young pollster.

James Bradford Coker III likes to tell people about his first and only bid for elective office. It provides a good introduction to his love for elections and also a measure of how far he has come in the five years since he founded Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, a political polling firm based in Columbia.

The year was 1982, and Coker, who had graduated with honors from the University of Baltimore the year before, decided to run for one of nine vacant seats on the Howard County Democratic Central Committee.

His success seemed assured. At 22, he was a veteran of several local campaigns and president of the county's Young Democrats Club. He was on the same slate as Hugh Nichols, the incumbent county executive, and had the backing of such prominent local politicians as County Council member Thomas M. Yeager, who was running for the state Senate.

Leaving little to chance, Coker embarked on an aggressive campaign, going door to door in some of the county's more conservative areas, taking out large ads in the local newspaper. By the time of the election, he had spent $3,000, more than some of the candidates for County Council.

Although he is still at a loss to explain his overwhelming defeat, he said the experience provided some valuable lessons. Namely, "You can do everything right and still lose," he said. "Also, that I was more interested in the politics side than the policy side of government."

His passion for politics undimmed, he interned for Yeager in Annapolis during the 1983 legislative session. He took a job with a market research firm to earn money, but by the spring found himself staining to be his own boss. But the question was, could he make a living in the process?

The answer presented itself later that year with the advent of the 1984 presidential race. Coker knew that the largest news organizations relied heavily on opinion polls to add depty and excitement to their coverage. Smaller media outlets, however, could not afford to hire their own polling staffs or privte firms that typically charge about $8,000 for a sampling of 800 voters. Coker reasoned that the smaller operations would like the service if someone offered them a way to make polls affordable.

He approached the editors at papers in Annapolis, Hagerstown and a few other Maryland cities and asked them whether they would be willing to share the results of a single poll on the state's upcoming Democratic primary. When they agreed, he fixed up a computer at his father's house in Columbia, arranged to borrow a phone bank, got a few friends to help and went to work.

Slowly, Coker worked to expand his client bse. He decided to focus on the South, hence the name Mason-Dixon. He contacted television stations and newspapers from Baltimore to Baton Rouge, placing a particular emphasis jon Florida, where he had grown up. After President Reagan's reelection, he continued to do polls on statewide issues in Maryland and Virginia.

By the beginning of 1986, Coker's business was gaining a reputation. He secured contracts with several candidates who would be facing reelection to the Maryland General Assembly or local county offices. Fearing that his work on behalf of politicians might damage his credibility with his media clients, Coker did something about that is almost unheard of in the world of political polling: He represented candidates from both parties.

Coker says he charges anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000 for a poll, depending on the length of the questionnaire, the number of interviews conducted, and whether the survey involves making long-distance calls.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) was one of those who used Mason-Dixon's services. He and three Democratic delegate candidates pooled their resources for an analysis of Maryland's 27th District.

"I found their work to be exceptional," Miller said. "The proof is in the pudding. What they predicted for me came to pass: the projected order of finish, they key issues in our area, the most utilized media sources, which of our delegates needed emphasis and in which parts of the district."

Another client, state Sen. Howard A. Denis ( R-Montgomery), said the polls he commissioned in 1986, his first, were particularly useful in helping him determine where to spend his precious -- and limited -- advertising dollars.

"I had to be sold on the idea because I was reluctant to part with what was for me a substantial amoung of my campaign funds early on, when I was more tempted to spend the money on balloons and nail files," Denis said. "But after the money was pried out of me, it was the best expenditure I made."

Mason-Dixon Opinion Research occupies a two-room suite on Columbia's Little Patuxent Parkway. Coker works there with a cadre of about 40 telephone interviewers, and his partners, Tim Gallagher, 30, whom he met at a Young Democrats convention, and Patrick Gonzales, 30, a friend from college. When together, they banter and bost cockily, sounding more like a bunch of fraternity brothers than political pundits.

"Hey, Pat, how did you call McMillen-Neall on the exit polls for Channel 2?" Coker asked Gonzales, referring to the hair-splitting congressional race that put former basketball star Tom McMillen in the House of Representatives over opponent Robert R. Neall.

"Fifty-point-seven, McMillen," Gonzalez said with a smile while Coker showed a reporter around the office.

"And how did it come out -- 50.2? What's that, 450 votes?" Coker responded.

Of all the predictions his firm has made, Coker said only one still haunts him, that he would like to go back and do it again. That's a poll from the last governor's race in Kentucky. Mason-Dixon predicted that former governor John Y. Brown Jr. would bet challenger Wallace Wilkinson in the Democratic primary, but Wilkinson won in an upset.

"We were convinced Brown was going to win because we had done so many polls and he had always come out ahead. We just didn't see the softness of his support," Coker explained. "If I had it to do again, I would keep the numbers and redo the analysis."

The three partners have been working around the clock lately to furnish their 200 media and political clients in 15 states with up-to-date information for the March 8 "Super Tuesday" primary races.

Recently, the firm received attention from such national publications as the National Journal and Time magazine for its analysis of the presidential hopefuls in the southern states. Although the results of the poll, which represented a three-month effort, were skewed when Gary Hart announced that he would reenter the race, they have been watched closely by the Republican Party, according to Thomas Silver, editor of the Polling Report newsletter.

Coker also is considering changing the name of his business so he can market his product farther west. Asked whether he would someday like to join the ranks of such nationally known pollsters as Lou Harris or Pat Caddell, Coker said he's skeptical that he could penetrate "that inner circle."

"I think I'm as good as any pollster, as good as anyone else, but I don't think I have to bang my head against the wall to prove something," Coker said. "I'm pretty happy with what I do now."