J. Joseph Curran Jr., Maryland's amiable attorney general, spends a lot of time on the campaign trail telling voters how many rascals he's put in jail.

That's because his Republican challenger, Edward L. Blanton Jr., says he's "silent and weak on crime."

Curran also talks a lot about how his office has forged new ties with the state's business interests.

That's because Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer has frequently expressed annoyance at Curran's aggressive litigation on behalf of consumers. Schaefer publicly scolded Curran, whom he has called anti-business, for joining other states in 1988 in a major antitrust lawsuit against the insurance industry.

To counter his detractors, Curran turns to his record, which he says includes a 100 percent conviction rate by his criminal investigation division, vigorous prosecution of Medicaid fraud, the state's first jailings of environmental polluters and the innovative use of tax laws to catch suspected drug dealers.

"For Ed Blanton to say I have been silent and soft on crime is totally false," Curran said in an interview.

Four years ago, many political observers predicted Curran's trademark "nice guy" manner would create a weak caretaker atmosphere in the mammoth 300-lawyer Office of the Attorney General, especially in the wake of his more activist and flamboyant predecessor, Stephen H. Sachs. However, Curran has been quietly aggressive during his four years in office, observers say.

"Beneath his 'niceness,' his willingness to accommodate and negotiate," said Dennis Sweeney, a deputy attorney general who has served under both Curran and Sachs, "there is a core of strong will . . . a willingness to stand on principle.

"He's a St. Francis of Assisi with a law degree," Sweeney said.

But Blanton's focus is on sinners, not saints. The GOP nominee is waging a law-and-order campaign calling for the death penalty for "ruthless murderers, cop killers and drug kingpins."

He proposes revamping the attorney general's office with a "crime czar" to develop new strategies for curbing crime and coordinating assignment of specialized prosecutors to bolster state's attorneys' offices throughout Maryland.

"I'd like to see a crime lab at the state level as good as the FBI's," Blanton said in an interview. "I'd like to see a centralized computerized crime data bank."

Blanton blames policies written by Curran's office for the premature release from prison last summer of robber and rapist John F. Thanos, who was charged with slaying three teenagers shortly after getting out.

Curran denies the accusation, and state officials have said Thanos's release resulted from a clerical error.

As for Schaefer's anti-business accusation, Curran says he has bolstered the role of his office in negotiating out-of-court settlements with businesses and has organized "roundtables" to improve relations with bankers, car dealers, manufacturers and owners of other state-regulated companies.

"He's kept an open door to the business community," said Charles C. Krautler, a lobbyist for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. Despite the "downside effect" of some litigation against businesses, he said, "he's created a good working relationship."

Curran, 59, a well-established fixture from an old Baltimore political family, is expected to win handily over the lesser-known Blanton, 59.

A lawyer from suburban Baltimore who has never held elective office, Blanton was an assistant attorney general from 1965 to 1968.

He said that while he was in the Attorney General's Office he created its consumer protection bureau and served on panels that helped revise the state's election and tax laws.

Blanton specializes in bankruptcy and business litigation in his private practice and ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 1978.

"We're in an uphill battle," Blanton said. "But we're in this to win." A recent Baltimore Sun poll put Curran ahead 55 percent to 16 percent.

While Curran's relationship with Schaefer has been rocky during much of the last four years, the two have formed a temporary alliance in a gesture of Democratic unity during the campaign.

This comes after rumors that the governor tried to recruit a strong Democrat to challenge Curran this year.

But now, "The governor supports him, I know that," Schaefer campaign spokeswoman Ricki Baker said. Curran has accompanied the governor on a number of campaign "zip trips" throughout the state. His name appears on campaign posters alongside Schaefer's.

Despite his apparently large lead, Curran has geared up a full campaign, raising $300,000 compared with Blanton's $75,000.

Curran, who served as a state senator from Baltimore for many years and was lieutenant governor in the Harry Hughes administration from 1982 to 1986, does not take elections lightly.

"I've lost elections before," he said, most notably a bid for Congress in 1968, "and that's the great equalizer." He blames his 1968 loss on his opposition to the war in Vietnam.

More recently, as attorney general, Curran's stands on abortion and the so-called right to die have invoked the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church, of which he is a member.

In opinions published by his office, he said the state's laws permitting abortion are consistent with recent rulings by the Supreme Court. He also held that terminally ill and permanently unconscious patients have a right to refuse life-sustaining treatment.

William D. Borders, Baltimore's Catholic archbishop at the time, condemned the withholding of food and water from permanently unconscious patients as homicide.

Curran is reluctant to discuss his relationship with Schaefer, saying, "I don't have as good a dialogue with the governor as I should." But he said his cool personal relationship is offset by "all the good relations" between his staff and the governor's. "His staff uses our office constantly . . . for advice," he said. "We have a great rapport."

Curran insiders say Schaefer rarely talks to Curran. "I don't think he's spoken directly to Joe on a legal matter in years," said one high-ranking official.

In March, the governor unsuccessfully sought $100,000 from the legislature to hire his own lawyer to undercut Curran's role as the state's chief legal adviser.

Ironically, the high-ranking official said, Curran, like Schaefer, is a "hands-on, can-do kind of guy" who "will sit around talking at great length with a {staff attorney} on specific legal issues. But it's a different style. He's less dictatorial, more collegial."