Ask Benjamin Louis Cardin if he is considering becoming Gov. Harry Hughes' running-mate this year, and this is what you get:

"I'm running for president."

"I'd love the job, I need the extra money."

"Maybe I'll get out of politics, I'm getting too old for it."

These nonsensical answers from the 38-year-old speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates--whom many consider the second most powerful figure in state government--are designed to give the impression that he is a man wrestling with a decision, that he may be attracted to the No. 2 spot on the Hughes ticket.

He's not.

There are several reasons why Cardin should want the job: statewide exposure, the opportunity to be a star in an administration that has lacked star quality for four years, the chance to cut off others already maneuvering for 1986 by making himself Hughes' logical successor.

Cardin understands all this. He knows that, for most, a move up is a move automatically made. But Cardin is not most politicians. He is a man of extraordinary self-confidence, ("I would like to be governor some day. . . I think I'd be pretty good at it," he says) and he is certain that when he does decide to run for governor he will be able to do so without anyone's coattails.

Once, Cardin put his political fate in another's hands. That was in eighth grade when he let a counselor talk him into running for school president against a ninth grader. Cardin lost. The next time he ran for office, in 10th grade, he had precinct captains in each home room. He controlled the race and his destiny and won.

It has been that way ever since.

For the last 16 years, Cardin has moved up in the political subculture of Annapolis, methodically planning each step. He arrived at the State House at age 23, while still in law school. By the time he was 30, he was the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He became House speaker at 35, the youngest in state history, and after four years in the job, his leadership in the legislature is unchallenged.

"This is a bicameral legislature," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's). "On one side you have the Senate and on the other you have Ben Cardin."

Cardin's style is to lead by consensus. He has never been pinned down as an idealogue, although a conservative lobbying group ranked him 136th of the 141 delegates in a survey based on voting records this year. He is essentially prolabor, proabortion and pro-Baltimore. But most of all he is prosystem.

"He likes to have a system," said Del. Paul E. Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), his closest friend in the legislature, "and have what we do fit into that system."

As a delegate, Cardin adjusted to the system. As speaker, he has changed the system, expanded the leadership and given people the kind of defined roles that create an atmosphere of complete efficiency. "He's a tremendous natural leader," said Sen. Victor L. Crawford (D-Montgomery). "He's got a leadership group around him that has very defined roles. When they need to get something done, everyone knows exactly what to do."

This style is in sharp contrast to Hughes, who often during his term, particularly the first three years, had a hard time telling the legislature what he wanted and getting it done. There are many in Annapolis who say that Hughes needs Cardin more than the other way around.

Example: One year ago, Hughes wanted a gasoline tax passed. Cardin did not. On the last day of the session, Cardin kept the bill from reaching the floor of the House. Hughes and his staff were furious. Cardin said he killed the bill because the Department of Transportation had none of the additional proceeds from the tax earmarked. He wanted to know where the money was going before the tax was passed.

After the session, Cardin met with the Hughes people. Even if we earmark the funds, they said, we'll never get the tax passed in an election year. Cardin promised to deliver the votes.

This year, the gasoline tax passed. It did little, however, to warm the Cardin-Hughes relationship. "Losing the gas tax last year was an embarrassing defeat for the governor and it was caused by Ben Cardin," said one Hughes aide. "It isn't the kind of thing you forget quickly."

That kind of animosity is of little concern to Cardin, who is determined to maintain the balance between the executive and the legislature. Some legislators say that Cardin has assumed too much power. They refer to the delegates as "Cardin's puppets." Cardin rejects that criticism, saying that if he has a weakness it is that he sometimes fails to take the lead on tough issues.

"You have to figure out that there are times to lead the delegates and times to leave them alone," he said. "I'll never ask a delegate for a vote when he is philosophically opposed to something. When a guy starts talking politics to me though, that's when I start arguing with him."

Politics is a word Cardin uses often. He doesn't mind being called a politician and, according to friends, has always resented Hughes' image as an apolitical white knight.

What's more, Hughes' success has forced Cardin to wait four years longer to make his move for governor. If Hughes had not upset Blair Lee III in 1978, there probably would not be a Democratic incumbent seeking reelection this year. Instead, Cardin is just one of a cadre of bright young Democrats who will try to make a move in 1986.

Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Rep. Michael D. Barnes and Baltimore County Executive Donald B. Hutchinson may be running either for governor or U.S. Senate that year, presenting serious competition even for Cardin. As powerful as he is in Annapolis, Cardin is virtually unknown in much of the state.

"In Annapolis Ben is a giant, but the further you get from the State House the smaller he becomes," said one member of the Baltimore delegation. "He has a lot of work to do to become a winner statewide."

Cardin knows that. Last fall he held a fund-raiser at the Baltimore Aquarium. Of the $100,000 raised, Cardin will spend no more than $20,000 getting reelected this year. The rest will be pointed toward 1986. Early next year, he will begin campaigning for governor. He knows he does not have the flash or the oratory to burst onto the scene in a dazzling blitz. He will build slowly and, if the past is any precedent, he will be a formidable candidate by the time he formally announces his candidacy.

The Cardin story begins with the Cardin family. It starts with Harris Kardonsky, a turn-of-the-century Russian immigrant who started a soda water factory in East Baltimore and changed his name to Cardin. He had six children, including three sons, J.L., Maurice and Meyer, the speaker's father.

Meyer Cardin served one term in the House of Delegates then gave up his seat when the family became part of the Jewish migration to Northwest Baltimore in the late 1930s. Politics were a part of Ben Cardin's life almost from the cradle. At age 10 he passed out ballots and leaflets to help get his Uncle Maurice elected to the House of Delegates. The house was always full of politicians and Cardin can still recall basement meetings that included political powerbrokers like Phil Goodman and Irv Kovens.

His Uncle Maurice, who served 20 years in Annapolis, remembers young Ben listening intently to the basement conversations. "He listened, but he never talked and never asked a question. But we knew he understood everything, even when he was very young."

Ben Cardin's own career began in 1966, after he had returned from the University of Pittsburgh (where he majored in economics) and married his high school sweetheart, Myrna Edelman. Meyer Cardin was a judge by then, Maurice Cardin was a fourth-term delegate and the family's power in Northwest Baltimore was clearly established. When the newlyweds began apartment hunting in Baltimore County, Meyer Cardin stepped in and told his son, "Stay in the city."

Ben soon found out why: The family wanted him to run for the House of Delegates. His uncle was retiring to become a workmen's compensation commissioner and the family wanted a Cardin on the ballot. On election day, Cardin stood outside the polls with his uncle and Marvin Mandel, then speaker of the House and a delegate from the same district.

"People kept coming up to me and saying, 'I voted for you again,' " Maurice Cardin said. But they had voted for a different Cardin. Because he was still in law school (at the University of Maryland), Cardin was tempted to ask for a minor committee assignment. But his uncle counseled him to follow in his footsteps and ask for a spot on Ways and Means. He did.

During that first year, Cardin spent hours studying the state's tax laws and earning a reputation as a financial wizard among his fellow legislators. [He still does his own taxes because he enjoys the exercise.] He was a political balloon, rising fast. During his second term he became vice chairman of Ways and Means and by 1972 was chairman. He was not yet 30, and he wanted to be speaker.

During those years, Cardin managed to separate himself from the branch of his family controlled by his cousin, Jerome Cardin. Jerry Cardin is a power in Baltimore County, but his reputation is that of an arm-twister, a wheeler-dealer. Even though Jerry is still part of Ben's political life, his reputation has not tarnished his cousin.

In 1978, knowing that John Hanson Briscoe was not returning as speaker, Cardin made his move. By election day it was a foregone conclusion that he would win. After being chosen, Cardin closeted himself for a month to put together his leadership group, wanting to broaden the leadership to try to streamline the process.

He emerged with a group headed by Donald B. Robertson (D-Montgomery) as majority leader. Scorned by some for his intensity and lack of humor, Robertson is nonetheless a brilliant technician and administrator. Cardin has delegated authority to him, and others, more than any other speaker. The Cardin leadership is always meeting, always organizing, always trying to keep problems inside the closed doors they meet behind and out of the public eye.

Most of Cardin's power is funneled through the committee chairmen and vice chairmen. The exception is Weisengoff, who has no official leadership position but is regarded as Cardin's right-hand man. He is Cardin's arm-twister although both men vehemently deny using such tactics. It is Weisengoff who tells Cardin where the soft votes are and why a delegate can or cannot be moved on an issue. He also provides Cardin with the cigars he occasionally likes to smoke.

Most of the delegates speak about Cardin in glowing terms. An exception is Frank B. Pesci Sr.(D-Prince George's) who was stripped of a subcommittee chairmanship two years ago when he got into a battle with Appropriations Committee Chairman John Hargreaves (D-Carroll).

"Ben should have stood up to Hargreaves when he tried to remove me," Pesci said. "But he didn't have the guts to do it."

Cardin: "No one ever questioned Frank's knowledge or competence. But he had a split with the chairman. They couldn't both stay." In the Cardin system, the leader stands by his leaders.

But not even his critics question Cardin's ability. In the legislature, his power is almost absolute.

Watching Cardin on the speaker's rostrum is like watching a circus ringmaster. Usually, he is doing four things at once: listening to debate with one ear, the phone with the other. Reading a bill with one eye, watching the floor with the other. He never stands still, shifting his feet constantly, sometimes even wandering over to talk to the press. He knows exactly where to look when he wants debate cut off and is famed for inventing rules when Roberts Rules may not suit his purpose at the moment.

His dry sense of humor helps him get away with such rule-bending. He is also a decent athlete who plays first base and bats cleanup on the House of Delegates softball team.

Because of talent?

"Because I'm speaker."