In a year when all the incumbents holding county office in Howard County are running for reelection, it seemed fitting that Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder paid a visit this week.

They, like Wilder, are the subject of incessant cocktail party speculation about their long-range plans.

Wilder arrived by helicopter in Columbia Monday to attend a fund-raiser for County Council member C. Vernon Gray (D-District 3).

Virginia's first black chief executive remained noncommittal about whether he was signaling presidential ambitions with his visit to New Hampshire last week and travels to at least eight other states during his first five months in office.

Howard County incumbents are offering similar non-denials. They know the current campaign is not merely a chance to win another term: It could provide a launch pad for election to a higher office in four years, according to Howard County Democratic Central Committee member David Marker.

"That's one of the dynamics that plays in an election year like this," Marker said. "A lot of them are really getting ready for the next election."

If County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D) wins this year, she would be prohibited from running for a third four-year term in 1994.

Jockeying for statewide offices will begin anew that year. And by then, the Maryland legislature will have completed its redistricting to bring the state in line with the population changes documented by the 1990 census.

Of the County Council's five members, Shane Pendergrass (D-District 1), Angela Beltram (D-District 2) and Charles C. Feaga (R-District 5) face challenges this year. Gray and fellow Columbian Paul R. Farragut (D-District 4) so far are running unopposed.

Bobo has one Democratic challenger, business executive Thomas H. Hartman, and two Republican opponents, former school administrator Charles Ecker and business executive Gilbert E. South.

The filing deadline for all offices is July 2. Primaries are scheduled for Sept. 11, and Election Day is Nov. 6.

Like most of the incumbents running in contested races, Beltram said she's had little time to think about seeking higher office.

"I'm not saying I wouldn't be interested in any other position, but right now I have just one thing on my mind: Winning my district," she said.

Incumbents' aspirations aside, there are other factors that will influence this year's campaigns, according to Jim Kraft, a Democrat running for the House of Delegates from District 14B. Democrats generally will try to maintain their strength in a county that is becoming increasingly Republican.

"We've got to hold our own," Kraft said.

The ratio of Democrats to Republicans in Howard County stands at 1.4-to-1, according to Carol Arscott, chairwoman of the Howard County Republican Central Committee. The ratio was nearly 2.5-to-1 about 10 years ago, she said.

"We think we're in a good position this year," Arscott said.

County Council incumbents formally kicked off their campaigns over the past week. Feaga got things started Saturday with a fund-raiser that drew about 500 people. He said he wants to change the zoning for the western part of the county to allow developers to cluster houses if the remainder of the parcel of land is set aside for open space. He also plans to introduce a bill to limit annual increases in property tax assessments to 5 percent.

Gray started his campaign Monday. He said he will push for changes in the zoning code to encourage construction of less costly housing, and will seek ways to provide health insurance to people who can't afford it. Gray said the county needs to work harder at employing minority-owned companies.

Farragut said he plans to spend his next term following through on changes approved in the county's blueprint for development, the General Plan. He also wants to expand county recycling efforts.

Pendergrass got into politics when she saw that her daughter's school was so cramped that the girl had to sit on the floor to take a test.

She said she will continue working to improve county schools and will push to maintain adequate parks and libraries.

Beltram is expected to continue to fight for growth controls, such as an ordinance requiring that development be restricted to areas with adequate roads and schools.

Bobo said she doesn't need a campaign kick-off because she told voters when she was elected in 1986 that she would run for a second term. She said she would use her next term to put in place the changes called for in her proposed General Plan. She said she also would continue to emphasize the arts.