When he leaves office this month, Blair Lee III plans to have his official portrait hung in the lieutenant governor's office of the State House here, instead of the governor's reception room with the other oil studies of Maryland's former chief executives.

After 15 months as acting governor, Lee believes he will be remembered more for transfering power than executing it. Historians, he says, will probably view him as a caretaker who picked up the state from a convicted and disgraced governor, steadied it and then passed it safely to the next elected governor.

"I'm beginning to wonder whether I really wanted to win (the gubernatorial election,)," he conceded in an interview Friday. "I wonder whether I was running because I wanted the job or because it was expected of me by all the Burdens (press secretary Thom Burden) of the world, all the politicians, everybody.

"It is a tough cutthroat game, and if you want it bad, you've got to be willing to do things that have to be done. I never was very good at that jugular stuff. I guess I was too soft-hearted."

Lee certainly aspired to a greater historic role than that of guardian in the months after he took over for suspended Gov. Marvin Mandel. In his first State of the State message last January, he said he was an acting governor "who intends to act" and he tried to push an ambitious program through the legislature. Later, he poured nearly $250,000 of his own money into his unsuccessful campaign for his own term.

But today Lee seems content with his transition role. As he enters his final days in office, he treats his job of preparing the next governor almost like a historic mission, offering advice here, finishing paperwork there. On Thanksgiving night, he worked past midnight preparing next year's budget, leaving behind some 40 relatives and the ambassadors from Kenya and France who were invited for turkey dinner at the Governor's Mansion.

"I'm everybody's little budget maker," he said. "I made them for Marvin (while serving as Mandel's lieutenant governer for seven years) and now for Harry (incoming Gov. Harry R. Hughes)." Perhaps his proudest moment came last month at the 200th anniversary celebration of the state Court of Appeals when Chief Justice Warren E. Burger of the U.S. Supreme Court, the main speaker, took him aside for a private moment. "He said he just wanted to congratulate me for bringing the state of Maryland back to a position of self-esteem and self-respect," Lee said.

"Coming from him," he continued. "I almost burst out crying."

The tack Lee took to guarantee a seamless transition from Mandel restored the state's confidence, he said, but it also may have cut short his political career. Had he been less softhearted and made a clean break with Mandel after Mandel was convicted for political corruption, events may have turned out quite differently.

Instead of continuing to criticize Mandel as he did at his first news conference as acting governor, when he accused his former boss of lacking candor, Lee quickly softened the tone, he now says "because of conventional political wisdom." He retained or found new government jobs for all but one of Mandel's aides and trusted several of them to run his campaign.

Even now, his last chance to balance the ledger, he finds himself "too considerate," doing favors for people he feels wronged him in the past. In recent days, he has awarded patronage posts to Mandel's chief of staff, Frank A. DeFilippo, and health secretary, Dr. Neil Solomon, even though, he says, "no two men in the Mandel administration did me more dirt" by unfairly blaming him for wrongdoings he never committed.

Both men appealed to him for a chance to extend their pension benefits after leaving state government by getting appointed to part-time state jobs, he said, "and it just seemed like a dirty little trick to deny them. Solomon came in with tears in his eyes and said he needed seven months somehow to complete his 16 years of employment. It didn't seem fair to say no."

Many times when he said "yes" to recommendations of the Mandel advisers who continued to surround him, he later regretted it, he says. The $80,000 in "walk-around" money he was told was absolutely necessary to get out the vote in Baltimore on election day turned out to be gratuitous. The politically expedient appointments, the loans -- all bad decisions.

In the end, the conventional political thinking turned out dead wrong, Lee now says, and he became a victim of the Mandel backlash. "The voters were sort of mad at themselves for voting enthusiastically for Marvin, not once but twice, and having him end up in the... They just wanted a total purge," he said.

The Mandel legacy impaired Lee in yet another way. The state's political leaders and opinion makers had grown accustomed to an all-powerful governor during the Mandel years, and the acting governor never had the political base or inclination to continue the tradition. But instead of assuming a lower profile, he seemed to keep groping for the right role, testing how far he could go with the legislature, the political bosses, the pressure groups and the press.

Lee concedes that he never really evolved as a governor in his own right, that he was still adjusting to the new position when he was defeated last summer. But he handicaps himself, noting he was serving as a non-elected acting governor filling out the lame duck term of a convicted governor. Then, events overtook him, the session and the campaign. "I never had a chance to catch my breath," he said.

But his critics take a harsher view, saying Lee never exhibited the political savvy for the most political of jobs. "All the things that made him a great transition man were his Achilles heel as a candidate for governor," said one political observer. "His single-mindedness, his zeroing in on budget zeroed him out of the lifeblood of politics, the stroking people and lying to people.

"He's a born number two guy."

Lee is the first to admit his political shortcomings. During his 25-year career as state legislator and lieutenant governor, he made his mark as a fiscal expert, one of the few state officials with mastery over spending and taxing formulas. Now he is looking for an interesting job in the Carter administration, and says that a federal regulatory commission post would fit the bill nicely.

The political pressures of governing Maryland were so intense, he said, "every bit of the pleasure of functioning in state government has gone out. It gets less and less rational and moderate. It's not a situation where a number of sensible people can sit down and work things out. You're just in a continuous battle with hired guns trying to protect the interest of their clients.

"In the old days, 10, 15, 20 years ago, there were certain well-known pressures you had to live with. Some of them were commercial powers, the lobbyists, the railroads, the utilities. With them were the politicians themselves and a few mild-mannered public interest groups. All that has changed. Now it is an absolute jungle of special interests and ax grinders."

Now that the fine details of transition are complete and he has little more to do as governor than sit hour after hour for his portrait, Lee is still beset with political pressures, final and desperate demands for appointments, and pardons and commutations.

"The thinking is, okay, you're a lame duck governor, you're on your way out, the sky's the limit," he explained.

Leaning over to his press secretary, Burden, who will lose his job the day Lee leaves office Jan. 17, he joked, "There's a job on the Censor Board, do you want it."

"No thanks, boss," Burden replied

"You see," Lee said, "I really don't have many good jobs to fill."