The mad dash for campaign cash has begun in earnest in Maryland, with the leading contenders for governor already amassing about $2.5 million for a race that is still three years off.

Campaign finance reports due to state officials today show that three Democratic candidates are aggressively raising money and already have garnered enough cash that other potential candidates--unless independently wealthy--would have a difficult time catching up.

Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger has the most on hand, $1,047,984. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has $863,744, and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has $444,352.

U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich Jr., a leading Republican gubernatorial prospect, has $74,798 in his state campaign account. He also has been raising money for his federal campaign fund, and aides said that account would total more than $550,000 by the end of the year. In an interview, Ehrlich said his campaign attorneys were researching ways that the federal money might be converted if he decides to mount a statewide campaign.

"Everybody's trying to raise money to look like they're serious contenders," said Lee Friedman, Duncan's campaign coordinator.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and his Republican challenger, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, set the record for a gubernatorial contest in 1998, raising about $6 million and $6.2 million respectively.

Fund-raising is no longer confined to the year or two before an election but is now a perpetual process. "The Bush phenomena raises it even further," said Michael Davis, a Ruppersberger spokesman, referring to Texas Gov. George W. Bush's lead in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. That lead is attributable in part to Bush's early dominance in fund-raising.

Maryland politics appears to be following the national trend, in which early fund-raising weeds out candidates unable to garner big bucks.

"What they're trying to do is . . . lock up so much money so long before the campaign that you preempt the field," said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson. "It used to be, you raised money to finance your campaign. Now, the raising of money is itself a campaign because it determines who's going to run."

All three leading Maryland Democrats are popular officeholders who can tap proven sources of cash.

"There's no question that the time period that people have traditionally raised money has been extended," said Jeffrey Liss, Townsend's campaign treasurer. "These are three very popular leaders. That's why people want to get on board early."

Although Ruppersberger has the most cash on hand, he also started the year-long reporting period with the most cash in the bank. He began the cycle with $529,624 that he raised during the last four-year election cycle.

Davis said Ruppersberger had that much money left over because the county executive did not have a difficult time winning reelection in 1998 and did not have to purchase television time for his campaign.

Duncan has been raising money at about the same pace as Ruppersberger during this election cycle, having collected all but $11,000 of his cash this year. Although he, too, did not face a serious challenge in the last election, he spent much of his campaign cash on Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts.

Friedman, Duncan's campaign coordinator, said that most of the money raised so far has been from Montgomery County supporters but that Duncan has begun traveling the state and plans fund-raisers soon in Baltimore.

Townsend has been setting the pace in fund-raising. She started the year with $103,302 in the bank and has collected more than $908,000 since January. After expenses, she still has more than $863,000 banked.

The lieutenant governor held a major Baltimore fund-raiser Nov. 17, attracting 600 people, and her report does not include money collected at the door because the cutoff date for the latest state reports was Nov. 16.