BALTIMORE, SEPT. 7 -- At the Hampden Democratic Club, deep in the row house neighborhoods of Baltimore where Gov. William Donald Schaefer has always drawn his strength, they credit the former mayor with everything from starting a local Christmas parade to the renovated school up the street. The allegiance runs deep.

But excited they are not, as the crowd mills beneath the bingo board, waiting for Schaefer to make a "welcome home" stop in his political base. With Schaefer running for a second and final term, club president John McHale says people are wondering: What campaign?

"It's like nonexistent, very low-key," McHale said.

At campaign events and in interviews with politicians, there is the same sense that elections are a mere formality for Schaefer, a heavy favorite who has raised 20 times more in campaign contributions than all of his challengers combined. He faces Realtor and gun rights advocate Fred Griisser in the Tuesday Democratic primary; the winner will run in November against either retired Foreign Service officer William S. Shepard or Baltimore surgeon Ross Z. Pierpont, the two GOP hopefuls.

That doesn't mean Schaefer is sitting still. His reputation has always been that of a politician who runs scared no matter how strong his advantage, and he has maintained that image with 7 a.m. handshaking assaults at train stations, and a "bagel tour" of Baltimore delicatessens.

But much of his campaign has been built around the assumption that he will return, a fact that has blurred the line between Schaefer the politician and Schaefer the governor. He combines political events with official announcements of local projects, and jetted off on a foreign trade mission just weeks before the primary. A recent Labor Day swing through Prince George's County, for example, was billed at first as a political event, but concluded with administration officials announcing plans to widen the Capital Beltway.

His administration has kept up a steady stream of releases advertising such projects, millions of dollars in local grants, loans to businesses and even a state softball tournament bearing his name.

If his approach is different, so have the stakes changed since 1986, when Schaefer was forced into a tough primary with former attorney general Stephen Sachs. In place of the petulant campaigner who stalked away from a debate when Sachs made him angry, he has become an almost paternalistic figure -- more kingmaker than candidate -- as he emphasizes the elections of his friends and tries to build the most sympathetic legislature he can.

Schaefer, in recent weeks, has made campaign swings on behalf of old allies such as Sen. Clarence W. Blount (D-Baltimore), and newer ones such as Del. Charles J. Ryan (D-Prince George's). He ventured into Montgomery County this week on behalf of County Executive Sidney Kramer, and gave him a $7,500 campaign contribution. As of late August, Schaefer had given other candidates a total of $62,000 from his $2 million reelection fund.

"He's running hard in a different way," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. (D-Baltimore).

With his more than adequate budget, Schaefer is airing television ads and maintaining the trappings of a reelection campaign. But the focus is clearly on the months beyond November, when the 68-year-old Baltimore native begins what could be the final leg of his political career, an era critical to the state's judgment of him. A possible budget crisis, changes in the state's tax system, consolidating gains in education and coping with growth will all be on the agenda, and Schaefer is characteristically somber. This campaign, he says, is no exercise in nostalgia.

"It's as if a new governor were coming in," Schaefer said.

His campaign, in addition, has devoted dollars that could otherwise go to radio spots or billboards to "Campaign for Maryland," a civic volunteerism effort that, campaign aides say, is not meant to sell Schaefer as much as embody his theory that government works best when people participate.

"We had a tremendous resource based on a very successful, popular incumbent . . . in terms of people, in terms of visibility, and we donated that" to encourage citizens to get involved, said campaign spokeswoman Ricki Baker. Although not widely visible beyond communities where volunteer events have been organized, Baker said the campaign has enlisted about 6,000 workers to fight illiteracy, pollution and drug abuse.

When Schaefer finally arrives at Hampden, one of the clubhouses that were once central to Baltimore's political life, the crowd of supporters has been revved up by City Council President Mary Pat Clark, who insisted that they stand and make noise to prepare for Schaefer. On the dais, community leaders have piled before the governor six hats, three shirts, a coach's jacket, a cake, and a bottle of Excedrin, a tribute to their powerful ally.

When he spoke, he gave the spotlight to two Baltimore Democrats on stage with him, Dels. James W. Campbell and Samuel I. Rosenberg.

They are the ones the community needs to worry about, he said, pointing to Campbell and Rosenberg like proteges: Baltimore needs them in Annapolis. He needs them in Annapolis.

It's a weighty endorsement for two young politicians in a tight race.

"And while you're voting for those two," Schaefer said as he was leaving the stage, "there's another guy that's running, a guy by the name of Schaefer. And he would appreciate your vote."