OWINGS MILLS, MD., OCT. 10 -- Leave it to a radio talk-show caller to get to the point.

"Is the governor going to debate?" the caller asked the candidates for Maryland lieutenant governor during a joint appearance here today. "Why is this {race} being debated?"

As to the latter question, Democratic Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg replied, "This is a serious office." Never mind that the lieutenant governor has no official duties and that the office has existed for only 23 of the 214 years since Maryland adopted its first constitution.

But the jocular lieutenant governor didn't really have an answer to the first question. Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer has declined to debate Republican William S. Shepard, who named his wife, Lois B. Shepard, as his running mate.

"I'm not married to Governor Schaefer," Steinberg said. "I can't speak for him."

And so it went in a two-hour preliminary bout in a campaign that seems unlikely to produce a main event. Schaefer, heavily favored to win reelection Nov. 6, has turned aside all questions about a gubernatorial debate, saying his opponent has no record to discuss.

Gubernatorial candidate Shepard, who stunned the Republican establishment when he put his wife on the ticket, watched the debate from an adjacent studio at WCBM. Staring out like a contestant on the television show "The $64,000 Question," Shepard held up a note to his wife and made punching motions when he wanted her to drive home a point.

"I suppose I shouldn't have done that," he said after the debate.

Schaefer was far away from this Baltimore suburb, spending the day campaigning with other Democrats in Anne Arundel County.

Lois Shepard criticized the administration's spending record and its projected deficit of more than $250 million. Steinberg played it down, saying Maryland's problems are nothing like those of neighboring Virginia or Massachusetts or the federal government.

But the debate did have its sharp-edged moments.

A caller named John said he had found in the state budget a $24 million expenditure of tax money for the new baseball stadium in Baltimore. Steinberg replied that he hadn't read all the thousands of pages of the budget and if John had, "You're a better man than I am."

Said Lois Shepard: "I have read the budget, and you didn't mention women."

Marge, another caller, wanted to know whether Lois Shepard would accompany her husband on foreign visits as first lady or stay in Annapolis to be acting governor in his absence.

"Yes, of course, I would stay in the state, but I would also look forward to being First Lady. It's time Maryland had a first lady living in the Governor's Mansion," she said, a thinly veiled reference to bachelor Schaefer and his refusal to take up full-time residence in Annapolis.

And then there was the mutual admiration.

"Mrs. Shepard is a very charming lady," said Steinberg, who had not met his general election opponent before today. "I appreciate that they have taken the effort to run for office."

And later, Lois Shepard reciprocated.

"I'd like to compliment Lieutenant Governor Steinberg, who's not hiding."

Which usually is the easiest act in the world for a lieutenant governor.