DAYS BEFORE THE outbreak in Miami, a little "Tent City" popped up in Annapolis -- aimed at peacefully dramatizing the plight of Maryland's poor people. There were no ugly confrontations, no violent acts, and the conduct of the demonstrators as well as the response of Gov. Harry Hughes were notable in their good sense.

Tent City's organizers drew up a 13-page proposal, with a request that the governor make the battle against poverty his top priority. But instead of responding with one of those stock mealy-mouthed replies that so many beleaguered bureaucrats resorted to in the 1960s, Gov. Hughes said flatly that no, he would not declare any "new war on poverty."

No? Just like that? That's right, and he did it twice -- first orally and then this week in writing -- and his explanation was as sound as it was refreshing: "Rhetorical commitments," the governor cautioned, "can only raise unrealistic hopes and expections and further disillusion the poor." Besides, Gov. Hughes said, the elimination of poverty has been a top priority; he pointed to a record that included a 21 percent increase in welfare payments in the last two years, a negotiated moratorium on utility cutoffs in the winter, new emphasis on the development of minority-owned businesses, improvements in the handling of food stamps, plans for rehabilitation centers as alternatives to jammed prisons, and housing rehabilitation programs.

Obviously this is far from being the sure-fire formula for an end-all victory over poverty. But as some Tent City leaders acknowledged, it is the record of an administration more sensitive to their interests than the one before it. To acknowledge this is not to acquiesce meekly to the establishment; Tent City may have been tame, but it was a useful and realistic reminder that government does and should have a strong responsibility for improving the lot of Maryland's poor people.