David R. Forward, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, was disturbed. "I keep reading that the Republican Party is defunct," he declared in the GOP headquarters here. "That's a lot of bunk."

Forward's distress is understandable. He is trying to lay plans for what he describes as a rebirth of the party in Maryland. He wants to raise $250,0000 this year, build up a credible organization, and recruit candidates for a whole series of state and local offices.

He is directing his greatest efforts toward the 1978 governor's race. In a 90-minute interview last week, he said that within the next two months he hopes to find a consensus gubernatorial candidate whom the pary leadership will "coalesce behind" to give the GOP an early jump on the race.

The job is hardly an enviable one. Almost any way you cut it, the party is in deep trouble in the state. Just four years ago, it could claim a United States Vice President, a Presidential cabinet member, two U.S. senators, the chief executives of three of the state's four largest counties, and four congressman.

Today it has one less congressman, one less senator, one less chief county executive, and Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned the vice presidency in disgrace, is preparing to move to California. It failed to carry the state for Gerald Ford, and its 1976 senate candidate, incumbent J. Glenn Beall Jr., and its 1974 gubernatorial candidate, Louise Gore, went down in embarrassingly large defeats.

Even worse, a group of influential state labor leaders last week urged the party's top vote getter, Sen. Charles McMathias, to switch to the Democrat Party on grounds that he might not be re-elected in 1980 if he remains a Republican.

Most of the handful of Republicans who are considered potential gubernatorial candidates in 1978 are not showing much interest in the race. Commented one: "Some of us feel like Teddy Roosevelt when he was asked if he would seek the nomination of the Republican Party for the presidency and he said, 'In order to do that, I'll have to find it."

Party chairman Foreward, however, claims he is optimistic about the future of Republicans in Maryland. "If you're out talking to Republicans, they are not all discouraged by the disasters that hit the party in the 1973-74 era anyone," he said.

His optimism may be one of degree. Forward has held a weak hand ever since he became GOP chairman two years ago. That was during some of the party's darkest days while the wounds of the Watergate scandal were still fresh. "We were $17,000 in debt and had only $98 in the bank," he recalled last week. "Our landlord had given us an eviction notice. The phone company was threatening to sue. And our one employee hadn't been paid in six months."

During the last year, the party has raised $70,000 and paid off its debts. It has hired an executive director, Laurence Hulbert, opened up a new expanded office here, and embarked on a campaign to built up a $250,000 war chest.

Forward is using the promise of this war chest and his influence as party chairman as his chief bargaining chips this month as he travels about the state talking to potential gubernatorial candidates. "I've told most of them that I want to hear about their intentions pretty quick," he said. "I've told them," 'If you want to run, get moving because I don't want to see a bruising Republican primary."

He said he wants the party leadership to develop "a general agreement" about who should be the party's 1978 candidate for governor by May and "coalesce behind" that candidate. "There won't be anything formal, but you'll know who we're behind," Forward said.

There are obvious advantages to this for a party that is out-registered by the Democrats by a margin of more than two to one, especially at a time when a host of strong candidates has crowded into the Democratic field. Basically, it would give the annointed candidate a year's headstart on the opposition. It would give him or her, a year to raise money and become well known around the state before the campaigns begins in earnest.

Most party leaders contacted last week support Forward's plan. "I don't want to see any knock-down, drag-out fights," said Rep. Robert Bauman, a conservative Repulican from the Eastern Shore. "I'd like to see an early consensus reached in the leadership and let the Democrats go out and tear themselves apart."

Sen. Mathias, the state's top ranking Republican, and newly elected Rep. Newton Steers, of Montgomery County, say this may be impossible. Commented Mathias: You just can't handpick a candidate for governor in a back room.People won't stand for it." Said Steers: "Consensus candidates are fine, but all it takes is one human being who says I'm not going to get out and the whole plan goes down the drain."

There are also two other problems. First, the Republican chairman in Maryland has seldom been able to exercise the kind of power necessary to develop a consensus behind one candidate. "When I was chairman (in the mid 60's), I described myself as a courier between tribal chiefs, not a leader," said Steers. "For a party chairman to have power, you have to have money and patronage to dispense. In politics, he who pays the piper rules."

Secondly, Republicans aren't exactly rushing forward for the nomination. The two best-known potential candidates from the Washington suburbs, former congressmen Gilbert Gude and Lawrence Hogan, have apparently taken themselves out of consideration. Many party leaders rule out the candidacy of another potential candidate, former Senator J. Glenn Beall Jr., because of his wide defeat last fall.

Congresswoman Marjorie Holt has expressed some interest in the the raec George Beall, the former senator's younger brother and the federal district attorney who prosecuted Spiro Agnew, and his successor Jervis S. Finney, have also been mentioned as potential candidates. Forward said he has approached several prominent business leaders, including J. Willard Marriott, in hopes of attracting "a fresh face" to the race. But when party leaders gather these days the names most frequently mentioned for the post are Anne Arundel County executive Robert Pascal, a former All-America fb ootball player, and Montgomery County executive James Gleason. Both, however, are keeping decidely "mum" on the issue.

Meanwhile, Mathis' relationship to the party remains an uneasy one after a legislative meeting las week. maryland AFL-CIO president Dominick Fornaro said if Mathias stays in the GOP he may be in severe trouble by 1980, particularly if Rep. Bauman decides to challenge him in the Republican primary. Mathias, Fornaro said, "is a liberal Repulican. His party has shunned him and it's time for him to move (to the Democratic party)."

Asked about the suggestion. Mathias, who toyed with running for president as an independent last year, said "just say I listened to what they had to say."

"My first choice and continued effort is to raise the prospects of the Republican party," he added. "That's my first priority. I'm not ready to abandon it yet."

Bauman, who has frequently been at loggerheads with Mathias, said he's considering challenging the senator in 1980. "He's obviously thinking about switching parties. He's already threatened to quit the party twice. I wouldn't be surprised if he did it," said Bauman.