Drawing more than 700 people, the Maryland Right to Life Political Action Committee staged a tribute last night for 16 antiabortion state senators who blocked passage of an abortion rights bill in the General Assembly last winter, and promised to support the legislators in upcoming elections.

Organizers of the $15-a-ticket dinner in Ellicott City said the event was staged to bolster the confidence of the senators who executed a filibuster in March over the bill -- 14 of whom are seeking reelection. However, they also hoped to gather as much as $7,000 in contributions when they passed the hat after the dinner at the Turf Valley Center.

"We wanted to get people together, to get them enthused about the campaign," said Michael Burns, chairman of the Right to Life PAC. "It's always helpful for a politician to see a crowd of 700 people who think you're the greatest legislator down there."

But the focus of the evening was also contributions. Sam Bogley, a former Maryland lieutenant governor who was one of the dinner organizers, told the crowd: "Early money is the best money in politics. When you have outside organized opposition coming into the state, we've got to get behind our senators."

Maryland is being closely watched nationally by groups on both sides of the emotional abortion issue, which has become a central theme in several state elections this year.

The state chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League has targeted for defeat three of the senators honored last night, and a half-dozen political action committees are raising money for campaigns on either side.

Underlining the defensive position that abortion opponents have taken in Maryland after the filibuster this year, master of ceremonies Gerry Mitchell said last night: "We're back to square one, and unfortunately for us, square one is still the one yard line."

Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery), one of the antiabortion senators at the dinner, said in an interview that abortion should not be the lone issue in her race against abortion-rights advocate Del. Patricia R. Sher (D-Montgomery) in the Sept. 11 primary.

"It would be very fine if we could get people . . . to talk about the other issues, like changes in the state tax structure, which are very serious for Montgomery County," Schweinhaut said.

When she spoke to the crowd, Schweinhaut promised to hold fast on the abortion issue. "I shall do everything I can to carry our banner high," she said.

Sen. Leo Green (D-Prince George's), who faces a primary challenge from civic activist and abortion-rights supporter Terezie Bohrer, echoed Schweinhaut's call for elections to go beyond one issue. "I'm not running on the {abortion} issue," Green said in an interview. "I've yet to have anybody ask me about abortion first. I hope the public will look at the full record."

Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel), a leader of antiabortion forces in the General Assembly, has no opposition for reelection this year. But he warned the audience in Howard County last night to become involved in campaigns where abortion-rights supporters are mounting challenges. "There are some particularly difficult races out there," Cade said.

Last night's dinner provided an example of how high emotions are running on the abortion issue in the elections. The invocation was delivered by Monsignor William F. O'Donnell, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Bethesda. O'Donnell two weeks ago removed from his parish council John Hurson, an abortion-rights supporter running for the state House of Delegates in Montgomery County.

In an interview yesterday, Burns, a former executive director of a Maryland Republican Party, said PAC officials are unsure how much money they will raise this year to assist antiabortion candidates.

"We'll raise as much as we can to give to candidates," Burns said. However, he said the PAC won't do what he called the "politically stupid" thing that abortion-rights groups did in targeting specific districts.