Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger III is making the rounds at this seaside resort, hobnobbing with municipal leaders from across the state as part of the annual meeting of the Maryland Municipal League.

His county doesn't have any municipalities, but that doesn't matter. Ruppersberger, reelected to his second term in November, is prohibited from seeking a third. Among other things, he's eyeing a run to succeed Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) as Maryland's top political leader.

Ruppersberger, 53, hasn't made any official announcements, and when asked, he allows only that he's keeping his options open. But he is one of four people most frequently mentioned as a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate. The others are Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and County Executives Wayne K. Curry of Prince George's and Douglas M. Duncan of Montgomery.

"It's way too soon," Ruppersberger said in an interview today, echoing what the others have said. "The most important thing is to do the job I was elected to do."

Still, Ruppersberger is sounding and acting like a candidate. He has $850,000 in the bank and plans to raise more. Last week, he was in Mitchellville attending a fund-raiser for Curry. Sunday, he dropped by Duncan's "dessert reception" here for municipal leaders. And tomorrow, he will moderate a Baltimore mayoral debate.

"He seems to be pretty well committed on running for statewide office because he can't run again locally," said Prince George's lawyer and political operative John McDonough, as Ruppersberger worked the room at Duncan's reception.

A lawyer and former prosecutor, Ruppersberger served nine years on the Baltimore County Council. The county surrounds much of the City of Baltimore and includes 175 miles of Chesapeake Bay shoreline. As executive, Ruppersberger prides himself on having improved education and public safety and having helped create 28,000 new jobs. Philosophically, he thinks that government can't solve all of people's problems and that it should stick instead with the staples of education, public safety and the good delivery of basic services.

Politically, Ruppersberger is a moderate. He believes that Democrats have to form coalitions to be successful.

"I think the state is becoming more conservative," said Ruppersberger, who grew up in Baltimore and attended the University of Maryland at College Park. "They only want spending on the basics like education and transportation."

Ruppersberger is not shy about pointing out that his county had recognized crime "hot spots" even before Townsend latched onto the idea of concentrating government resources in high-crime areas. And before Glendening pushed statewide "smart growth" to prevent suburban sprawl, similar initiatives already were underway in his county, Ruppersberger said.

Some Democrats have accused Ruppersberger of not doing enough during the last election campaign to help Glendening and his party win. Ruppersberger also drew fire from Curry and Duncan two years ago when he abandoned their campaign to balance a huge financial aid package for Baltimore schools with more money for the suburbs. Ruppersberger said he didn't want to hurt his city neighbors.

Despite those flare-ups, Ruppersberger, Duncan, Curry and Townsend remain publicly cordial to one another.

"We've worked well together," Townsend said of Ruppersberger, as she, too, made the rounds at Duncan's reception. But should he be the next governor?

"What?" she asked, playfully putting the questioner in a headlock.

While he is well known in the Baltimore region, Ruppersberger understands that he would have to spend plenty of money on television ads to overcome his lack of name recognition in the Washington suburbs.

If he does run, what's the key to victory?

"You get the best team you can get," said Ruppersberger, who played high school and college lacrosse. "And then you articulate why you're better than the other person."

CAPTION: Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger III is one of four Democrats being mentioned as likely candidates for the governor's job.