There is a riddle circulating these days at Miles & Stockbridge, one of Baltimore's premier law firms.

"Do you know how the receptionist answers the phone at the firm these days?"

The punchline: "Hello, Governor's Club."

Harry R. Hughes, the Democratic nominee for governor, practices law at Miles & Stockbridge. So does George Beall, the brother and campaign chairman of Republican candidate J. Glenn Beall Jr. For many in downtown Baltimore it comes at a pleasant surprise that the line to political power in Maryland leads so neatly to the heart of the city's establishment.

Around the state, Beall and Hughes have been described as the "bankers' choice" by both Democrats and Republicans. It has been decades since Marylanders have selected as their gubernatorial nominees two men so philosophically akin, who describe themselves as moderates while presenting essentially conservative programs to the public.

Normal party divisions do not apply. Their greatest disagreement is over who will best fulfill the citizens' demands for caution and prudence in government. Both have promised to cut taxes by at least $80 million, concentrate on bringing new industry to the state, forbid public employes to strike or engage in binding arbitration, reduce the size of the bureaucracy and remove any remaining hint of political corruption.

"I see this race as one between the two parties to capture a movement," said Del. Gerard F. Devlin (D-Prince George's). "I don't know what you'd call this shift in public sentiment. Proposition 13 fever isn't broad enough to describe it. But both candidates seem to understand it."

Other politicians say this is simply a desire among the voters for some quiet and common sense after they witnessed the public disgrace of their last two governors; Marvin Mandel who was convicted for political corruption, and Spiro T. Agnew who pleaded no contest to a tax evasion charge. At the same time, while their representatives were pushing through progressive legislation, their tax burden rose to the fifth highest in the country, and their state budget quadrupled.

Another Democrat sees things in more orthodox colors. "It's as if we have two Republicans running for governor. It's not that unusual for Maryland to go concentrate. It was a border state."

Neither candidate, though, is an ardent follower of any political philosophy. Beall, the namesake of one of Maryland's more notable Republican officials, says simply that he was raised to give community service and improve the quality of life for as many people as possible and that today most citizens have come around to a Republican point of view.

"I'm trying to convince people that I'll run an economical government and show them I'm sensitive enough to do the things that have to be done for the people, that's it," Beall explained.

Hughes, the son of a high school teacher from Maryland's Eastern Shore, eschews the bold promises and liberal spending of his fellow Democrats. Instead he talks about retrenching and consolidating the progressive gains of the past decade. "What we need is a governor who's going to go in and look at what's there and see if the programs can be made any better," he says. "The governor shouldn't go in with the idea of looking for new programs."

It is no wonder that these two rural Marylanders, Hughes from the small town of Denton in Caroline County and Beall from the Western Maryland industrial city of Frostburg, are so acceptable to the cautious big-city bankers, businessmen and lawyers who stayed far away from state politics during the eight years of the expansive, wheeling and dealing administration of Mandel.

And both candidates are as understated in personal style as they are in their political philosophics. Beall, 51, a gray-haired insurance broker who dresses in muted business suits, is a genial, soft-spoken man. While campaigning, he smiles broadly and moves through the crowd smoothly, rarely pressing himself on people.

Hughes, also 51, is a more reticient man who seems to find campaigning painful. Advance men wring their hands when he wades into a large crowd and then singles out a few individuals for long conversations to the exclusion of others. he is a reserved man who in private has a razor sharp wit but who admits having trouble projecting a public personality.

When his wife, Pat Hughes, was asked recently to describe her husband's personality, she said he was "a very calm, genuine man. He's very dependable. There are no histrionics, no flamboyance. There's a place for that, usually on the stage."

Is he given to philosophical thoughts in private? she was asked.

"Heaven no," Mrs. Hughes replied. "We're back to soap opera with that question. He's living in the real world, the way it is."

Both candidatees have had long careers in government with at least one striking similarity. Hughes and Beall each received a big boost midway in their political lifetimes from a patron eventually brought down by scandal. The way each man responded to the scandal also strongly influenced his career.

Hughes was chosen state Democratic chairman in 1969 on the recommendation of then-Gov. Mandel. Two years later, Mandel appointed Hughes as the first state transportation secretary. While Hughes was serving as Democratic chairman, Beall was running for the U.S. Senate with the strong support of the Nixon White House. Then-president Nixon and vice president Spiro T. Agnew campaigned fro him in Maryland and White House aides funneled $180,000 into his campaign from a secret fund used to defeat Democratic incumbents.

The White House connection that propelled Beall into the Senate in 1970 turned out to be his undoing just six years later. He was one of the last Maryland Republicans to break with Nixon, even as he was being pulled deeper and deeper into the Watergate morass. During his unsuccessful relection bid in 1976 - he was defeated by Paul Sarbanes - Beall was continually on the defensive as he tried to justify his loyalty to Nixon and explain what he did with the $180,000 he accepted from the White House's secret "Townhous Operations" fund.

When Hughes found himself in the middle of a tainted administration, he responded in a way that furthered his political fortunes. While Mandel was awaiting his second trial on political corruption charges, in May 1976. Hughes resigned his transportation post in protest after charging that a Baltimore contractor with political connections was "tampering" with a state subway contract.

The resignation gave Hughes an opportunity to put distance between himself and Mandel, who was convicted a few months later of racketeering an dmail fraud. Many of Hughes' primary supporters say they were drawn to him becuase of his reputation for integrity, an image dramatized by his resignation from a corrupt administration on a matter of principle.

While they held public office, Beall and Hughes exercised power in very different ways. As a U.S. senator, Beall had a reputation for good constituent service, paying more attention to such local interests as the Port of Baltimore and the Public Health Service hospitals than the more glamorous national issues of the day. He took leadership positions on some bills but was not considered a Senate leader.

Hughes' approach was somewhat different. Soon after he arrived in Annapolis as a state legislator from Caroline County in the 1950s, Hughes became known as a "state man" who often defied his conservative farming constituency by taking forward-looking stands on civil rights legislation and bills that favored the faraway urban centers of Maryland.

By 1965, he was one of the most influential members of the General Assembly. As Senate majority leader and chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, he helped craft and floor manage the most important fiscal and education programs of the decade, such as the state's first graduated income tax law and a redistribution of state aid to the poorer counties.

When Hughes was growing up in Denton, he was thought of as a young man on the rise. That impression wasn't based on his scholastic performance - he was not an outstanding student - nor his personality - he was a quiet, retiring type.

Hughes drew notice because he was an athlete, a star baseball pitcher who won a varsity letter at the University of Maryland, burned up the Mar-Del semipro league and played Class D minor league ball after signing a contract with the New York Yankees.

The world of sports was a comfortable medium for the tall, lanky Hughes. It was an arena where performance spoke louder than words and hard work paid off. That fit in well with his own personality and the conservative Eastern Shore society of his youth.

"In metropolitan areas, people are recognized fr being sharp," said jack Logan, one of Hughes' oldest friends from Denton. "In rural areas, if you get a reputation for being a sharpy, you've had it. You don't see flamboyant people here.

"Take ole Harry. He's not pushy, but he's forever going forward accomplishing all the things he aimed to. If you're going to be in a group and having your picture taken, you don't have to worry about Harry stepping up front."

Even today, after years at George Washington Law School and in Annapolis and Baltimore, the Eastern Shore reserve comes through it. It is hard to learn much about Hughes through normal conversation. Rarely asking questions himself, he answers them with such brevity as to cut short the discussion. He does not believe in wasting words.

Last week, an interviewer tried to find out how Hughes spends his free time. The conversation went like this:

"Do you have any hobbies?

"You mean like cabinet making?"

"Yeah or gardening or stamp collecting."

"No, not really.

"Well, what do you do in your spare time?"

"Really don't have much."

"Well, when you do have some, do you go to ballgames or concerts, or what do you do?"

"Yeah, uhuh."

From the time of the Great Depression until 1976 there had been a J. Glenn Beall holding public office. Beall senior was first elected state senator in 1932, when his namesake was five years old. When Beall senior lost his Senate seat in 1964, J. Glenn Beall Jr. was already in the state legislature. Two years later Beall junior was in Congress and two years after that he won back the Senate seat his father had lost in 1964.

Few politicans can point so easily to the major influences in their life as Beall can. "My father always impressed on us to do something of benefit to the community," Beall explained. "We've always been involved."

In Frostburg, the Bealls are close to an institution. They always lived modestly although Beall was sent to Philips Exeter Academy and to Yale.

Much of the resilience of Beall and his security in facing the three-to-one voter registration odds against the Republicans in Maryland stems from being so well rooted in the state. "I'm lucky. I have a real base and that's Western Maryland. I know we'll carry that part of the state at least."