In early scattered returns acting Gov. Blair Lee III took a narrow lead in the Democratic primary for governor of Maryland, while J. Glenn Beall, Jr. pulled ahead in the race for the Republican nomination for governor.

Early returns from Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore showed Lee leading Harry R. Hughes, the former transportation secretary by a small margin. Trailing Hughes was Baltimore County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis and Baltimore City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky.

On the Republican side, former U.S. Sen. Beall was running far ahead with a comfortable lead over his three opponents, former Prince George's County sheriff Carlton G. Beall, who was running second; Louise Gore, the party's 1974 nominee, and Dr. Ross Z. Pierpont, a Baltimore surgeon.

Jackie Smelkinson, campaign manager for Venetoulis, said "the early results are showing some strange things . . . Hughes is taking votes away from Lee in Montgomery County and he's doing better than we expected in Baltimore County."

In the attorney general's race Stephen H. Sachs, 44, held a small lead in the Democratic contest while Warren Rich, the 39-year old candidate on J. Glenn Beall's ticket was the clear favorite in the Republican field.

Throughout the state the voter turnout was described as low to moderate with election officials predicting that at most 40 percent of the registered Democrats would vote before the polls closed.

The greatest surprise was in Lee's home county. Montgomery County poll watchers reported one of the smallest turnouts in recent memory, with county officials saying that fewer than 40 percent of the registered Democrats had voted. Prince George's County voters came out in equally small numbers with initial counts showing only a 25 percent voter turnout. No figures were available early last night on the Republican turnout.

No early results were available from the Washington suburbs. In Montgomery County, the ballot tallies had to be taken by automobile to a central headquarters, and in Prince George's County, the returns were being tabulated by a computer system being used for the first time.

Lee began his campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination on the first day of Mandel's second trial on political corruption charges. As federal prosecutors told the jury that Mandel had manipulated the state legislature to bring profits to his friends' racetrack, Lee was telling the press that corruption was finished in Maryland.

Despite a stormy session of the legislature in which Lee often found himself at odds with Senate President Steny H. Hoyer, by early summer Lee had brought Hoyer over to his ticket, convincing him to run as his lieutenant governor.

It was the greatest coup of Lee's campaign. Hoyer brought with him the backing of the most potent countywide organization in Maryland - that of Prince George's County. With Hoyer, Lee gained not only the Prince George's County Democrats but support from political organizations around the state that felt comfortable with Hoyer, and endorsements from most of Maryland's elected officials.

Hughes made his decisive move in the spring of 1977, during the interim between Mandel's two trails. Hughes was then the state secretary of transportation, also a Mandel appointee. Like Lee, Hughes had been a loyal Mandel cabinet member through most of the suspended governor's 8-year administration.

Hughes unexpectedly resigned from his post that May after a quarrel that grew from the bidding for the Baltimore subway, the largest public works project in Maryland's history. Hughes claimed that a politically influential Baltimore contractor was trying to "tamper with" the bidding procedures. Eventually, Hughes choice was awarded the contract but by then the former transportation secretary was in the race for governor.

For Venetoulis, the most controversial of the challengers, the campaign began in January 1977 when he hired a full-time manager. By summertime, Venetoulis, a highly respected campaign manager himself, had set in motion for the groundwork for his volunteer campaign organization.

After Mandel's conviction, Venetoulis settled on his theme. "A New Maryland" was soon to be seen scrawled across Venetoulis' literature. He promised to "scrub the walls" of the state and put an end to the decades of Maryland political scandals and to increase citizen participation in government.

All three men were at least one yer behind the early efforts of Orlinsky who began campaigning in 1976, at a 4th of July parade in Western Maryland.

Orlinsky gave the Democratic candidates their first group nickname: "born-again virgins." It was his protest against his opponents' universal claims of innocence in any of the past scandals that marred the state's reputation.It was a joke but the label stuck and soon corruption as an issue slid into the background. In its place, the campaign became one of a choice between continuity and change.

Here Lee was on one side against the three challengers. Although the acting governor agreed that the tax system should be reformed, the state's economy revived and the bureaucracy held in line, he offered few new proposals. Instead, he ran as the incumbent, offering his one-year record as chief executive as the basis on which voters should judge him.

At the other extreme was Venetoulis, who promised to change almost every aspect of state government. He said he would appoint an entirely new cabinet. He also said he would overhaul the tax system, government management procedures, the transportation system and the social service agencies.

Then there was Hughes who gradually found the center ground and held it. He offered change, as did Venetoulis and Orlinsky, as well as experience. With very few issue papers or new proposals but with a grasp of the issues that grew apparent in television debates, Hughes became a self-described "thinking man's candidate.