EVER SINCE last fall, and on through the General Assembly session, Maryland's candidates for governor have been trying 1) to accentuate their differences and 2) through go-betweens, court each other to form tickets. That, after all, is how you work to co-opt your rivals while trying to attract certain constituencies. One rule of this game, to be sure, is that when two rivals do form a ticket, the others are expected to yell "Tradeoff!" or "Power brokers!"

So return with us now to those clear days of yesteryear, along about September, when the early political overtures were being made. That's when the gossip was juicy with all sorts of possible pairings. A campaign aide of Attorney General and candidate-for-governor Francis (Bill) Burch was quoted as having heard that Acting Gov. Blair Lee III might be talking to Steny H. Hoyer of Prince George's Country; and a backer of Baltimore County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis was saying that Mr. Hoyer might team up with Baltimore Mayor Donald Schaefer; and that Mr. Burch might be Mr. Lee's running mate. Meanwhile, Mr. Burch was reported to have made indirect overtures to Mr. Venetoulis while Mr. Hoyer's supporters were courting Venetoulis aides as well as friends of Mr. Schaefer . . . and so on.

While all that was going on, the candidates also were busily staking claims to the "reform" school of politics - which this time means putting some distance between themselves and anything that might smack of Marvin Mandel-style politics. So you had Mr. Hoyer pinpointing the dangers of Mr. Lee's political status: "I believe people are looking for change, which is more than a transition."

Now that Mr. Hoyer is Mr. Lee's running mate, of course, what Mr. Hoyer used to think of as mere "transition" suddenly becomes real "change." And, as if it were automatically a sinful linkup, Mr. Burch notes that "what we have now is the Washington suburbs against the Baltimores. . . . The race now pits the politicians of Annapolis against the outsiders. It pits the rich, monied interests against the middle and working classes." Ditto from the Venetoulis camp.

For his part, Mr. Lee is suddenly seized by the thought that "geography doesn't mean a damned thing. It's the ability and capabilities of the individuals that count." So much for foolish consistency.