There are a lot of people who never thought Parris N. Glendening would survive to be where he is now, ensconced safely in the second year of his second term as Maryland's governor, presiding over prosperity and maybe even enjoying a little popularity.

Elected by the slimmest of margins in his first term, the election results were contested in court for weeks. Virtually from his first day in office he was under fire for a series of missteps, mostly of his own making, but Glendening (D) has finally gained his footing.

It is a comeback of sorts for the first Maryland governor to be elected from the Washington suburbs since 1869. It is also a vindication of his style of progressive politics during an era when a less-is-more approach to government has dominated so many state houses.

"Everyone at every turn has underestimated the guy," said House Majority Leader John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery). "He has come into his own as governor."

Glendening, who offers his annual State of the State address Wednesday, enters this General Assembly session in one of his strongest positions ever, which many lawmakers recognize.

His proposed gun control legislation is sparking controversy, but legislative leaders predict that at least some version of it will pass. With the first installment of Maryland's $4.4 billion share of the national tobacco settlement soon to be paid, some lawmakers question details but offer little criticism of the governor's plans to direct much of it to cancer research and anti-smoking efforts.

For administration officials who suffered through those first years of constant criticism, that is a new position. They say there was nowhere for Glendening to go but up.

"It couldn't have been any worse than the first couple of years. Part of it was the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Clearly some [administration] people should not have been here. It had to get better," said one administration official. Winning by fewer than 6,000 votes initially, "you do not have a mandate. Every geek legislator thinks he can fool with you, and he can. You can't govern without a mandate."

A 10-percentage point reelection victory changed everything. This year's $925 million budget surplus is buying lots of friends. And Glendening is benefiting from five years of experience dealing with the General Assembly. All of which has combined to end much of the sniping from Glendening's critics--who until Election Day 1998 unloaded a daily barrage of attacks.

Republicans and Democrats alike once assailed him for spending $200 million for a football stadium in Baltimore. They disparaged him for trying to take a sweetened pension deal from his days as Prince George's county executive. Critics questioned him for traveling to New York for a fund-raiser thrown for him by a company seeking state business. And top political leaders, including the then-mayor of Baltimore, questioned his veracity. No one mentions much of that any more.

"Those were issues addressed in the election," said Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden (R-Howard). "The people brought Parris Glendening back as governor. I'm not sure [such concerns] should be on the plate."

Apparently most voters don't think they should, either. A Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications poll of 826 registered voters conducted statewide this month found Glendening had a 56 percent job approval rating; 34 percent disapproved and the remainder were undecided. It was a vast improvement for a governor whose popularity in his first term once dipped to 18 percent, making him the least-popular governor in the nation.

But popularity was never what he sought, Glendening said in an interview last week. "I wasn't necessarily elected to be voted the No. 1 personality in the state. I was elected to do the things that are important to the people's future and that's what I'm doing," he said.

Legislators say that Glendening has grown more effective in his relationship with them. He is not making some of the political mistakes he made in his first year in office, such as the time he traveled the state to sign bills into law on his own, without the House speaker and Senate president to accompany him--which not only is required by law but broke political protocol.

"I was used to a council of nine [in Prince George's County] and quite candidly you need five strong votes and you get anything you want," Glendening said. "Here, you have 188 [legislators] and we have some very strong personalities that need individual attention."

Glendening, 57, is entering the final stretch of his administration with only this session and next left to solidify his goals and establish his legacy, even as he eyes the next step in his political career. His last session in 2002 will be caught up in the next round of elections and in the redistricting of legislative districts.

He is continuing to emphasize his progressive agenda for the state's schools and colleges and the environment, as well as working to make state government more inclusive of women, minorities and gay people.

This year, he is devoting another $250 million toward his goal of spending $1 billion during his second term to build and renovate schools. And he has proposed an additional $1.2 billion for construction at Maryland college campuses.

Though he considers himself the education governor, the hallmark of his efforts for schools has been spending money to build them. Glendening, a former University of Maryland professor, has not waded into the thornier issues of school testing and accountability that can rile such powerful political allies as the state's teachers union.

"The people who have made their reputations as education governors, like Bill Clinton did as the governor of Arkansas, have all focused on the tough issues, on how do you improve the performance of students," said Christopher Cross, who headed the state school board under then-governor William Donald Schaefer (D) and now directs the Council for Basic Education.

"A legacy in education is not literally constructed on buildings alone."

Glendening's efforts to control sprawl and protect the environment generally draw higher praise. The governor has spearheaded the purchase of more than 150,000 acres of land to protect it from development, and he has won enactment of laws meant to direct development away from sensitive areas. "It's changed everybody's thinking in the state," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), one of the leading environmental advocates in the General Assembly.

Glendening has appointed scores of minorities to key positions in state government and the courts--he named the first African American chief judge for Maryland, for instance--but he has been less successful in his personal mission to enact prohibitions on discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Senate refused to consider his proposal on sexual discrimination last year, which was a major setback. He has made it a goal before he leaves office.

This year, he'll also tackle gun control legislation, trying to make Maryland the first state in the nation to require that handguns eventually be sold with special devices that allow only their users to fire them. And he has resisted calls for additional tax cuts despite a large surplus.

Those unabashedly liberal--Glendening prefers progressive--stances are read as signs that the governor is burnishing his image to catch the eye of a future Democratic president.

"Who wins the presidential election is important to him," said Secretary of State John T. Willis, one of Glendening's chief political advisers. "He'll be positioned to be helpful to the next Democratic administration."

Glendening, who is a strong supporter of Vice President Gore, is set to move to the national stage himself this summer when he assumes the chairmanship of the National Governors Association.

A little more than a year ago, during his reelection bid, many wondered if Glendening would see another term. Now he is able to ponder the next step in his political career.

"I always take the long view in things," he said. "I take the long view both in terms of policy. In terms of personal and professional career, I take a long-term approach and try to map out on a rolling basis where we're going and what the next options are. You don't get anywhere by happenstance."

CAPTION: Gov. Parris N. Glendening chats with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. on the opening day of the Maryland General Assembly.