The wooing of Baltimore begins months, sometimes years, before an election. It goes on in sedate businessmen's clubs on Charles Street, in Bud's East Baltimore crab house, where old-style politicians still meet to decide on patronage and candidates, in synagogues and black Baptist churches, and in the editorial offices of the influential Baltimore Sunpapers.

The courtship occurs each election year and it is the key to success for anyone seeking statewide office in Maryland. Here, in the state's only major city, are the money, the influential media and nearly one-fifth of the two million voters. This is where Ronald Reagan lost Maryland in 1980.

"It's the heartbeat of the whole state," said Republican Senate candidate Lawrence Hogan, who like others in his party views Baltimore and its 8-to-1 Democratic registration with wariness. "You can win without it -- if you get an overwhelming vote everywhere else. But you can't ignore it."

Because Baltimore is a patchwork of distinct communities, each with its own political personality and power structure, election-year wooing here requires skill and versatility. Many never figure out the system. A few, such as former governor and mayor Theodore McKeldin, know exactly how it works: Wherever he went in Baltimore, McKeldin carried a yarmulke in one pocket and a rosary in the other.

The first rule of wooing Baltimore is that the Establishment has the money.

This relatively small circle of bankers, lawyers, businessmen and boardroom regulars has the clout, income and connections needed to help finance a statewide campaign. Virtually all of these people are found in Baltimore, headquarters of the state's utility companies, major banks, and the blueblood law firms that regularly produce U.S. attorneys and fill posts in Washington.

"They are the opinion makers," said U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-5th Dist.), who believes his 1978 gubernatorial effort was derailed because "I never cracked that crowd."

In one fashion or another all the major candidates for state office -- Democratic Gov. Harry Hughes, his GOP opponent Robert Pascal, Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes, and Hogan -- pursue members of the Establishment.

Pascal has used his background as the head of a small oil business to go after the businessmen. He has sewn up the support of the top executives of two utilities and a large insurance group. He has attended businessmen's breakfasts put on nearly every Sunday by Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, a man well-beloved by the Establishment.

Hogan has become a regular visitor to monthly businessmen's meetings sponsored by the city's GOP. Sarbanes, too liberal for many of the conservative businessmen, has focused instead on the silk-stocking law firms where he made a living before being elected to Congress.

Hughes, who did not enjoy much Establishment support in his longshot 1978 race, went after it early this time. He selected Henry Rosenberg, head of Crown Central Petroleum, to head his campaign and selected as chief fund raiser the former executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a politically potent group of lawyers and businessmen. Last winter he began hosting breakfasts for the city's chief executives at Baltimore's Center Club, with its sweeping view of the new Inner Harbor that is so dear to the city's Establishment.

His efforts apparently have paid off: to date Hughes has raised $200,000 more than Pascal and nearly three times as many large $1,000 contributions--much of it from the Baltimore Establishment.

From trendy Bolton Hill to the port worker neighborhoods of South Baltimore, a candidate must deal with the ticket makers who can tap into the other side of the city's wealth -- its votes.

Ticket makers are sometimes clubs, sometimes churches, and most often state senators, the dominant politician in each district. Baltimore has hundreds of ticket makers who determine who will appear on their district's, or club's, sample ballots that are handed out at polls on election day. In a city as steeped in ward politics as Baltimore, thousands of voters religiously follow the sample ballot of their organization or party as they move from line to line in the voting booth.

To reach the ticket makers requires money, enough to pay for a share of printing sample ballots and other more old-fashioned expenses such as paying people to hand out the ballots -- known as "walking around money" -- or even to vote, although those traditions are now a violation of state election law.

Even Hughes, who made a point four years ago of running without the organizations and without paying ticket makers, is taking no chances this time: the major ticket makers -- State Senators Clarence Mitchell, Joseph Bonvegna, Clarence Blount, for instance -- were given $2,500 each in campaign funds to cover "printing costs."

Wooing the ticket makers also requires a certain sophistication about the city. It means knowing, for instance, that if the organization of State Sen. Joseph Curran in Northeast Baltimore is with you, Len Mahoney's group in the same area will be against you.

No one knows that better than Paul Weisengoff, the wily and irreverent delegate from blue-collar South Baltimore who spent days before the primary election trying to squeeze his gubernatorial candidate, Baltimore Sen. Harry J. McGuirk, on as many ballots as possible. When Hughes won the support of one state senator after another, Weisengoff went to their opponents. When there was internal dissension in a club, Weisengoff went to the dissidents.

The ethnic vote is everywhere in Baltimore. It is in south Baltimore rowhouses where the Lithuanians live. It is in East Baltimore, the site of Greektown, Little Italy and the Polish neighbhoods of Canton. It is in northeast Baltimore with the Irish and Germans.

These communities operate like small towns inside the city, each with a newspaper or radio program (the Lithuanian Hour, the Italian Melodies Hour, the Polka Program), social organizations and favored sons. A slight to one is often perceived as a slight to all.

"You don't want anyone to say, 'Why weren't you at the German festival? Don't you like Germans?' " said Baltimorean Benjamin L. Cardin, speaker of the House of Delegates who is preparing for a future statewide run.

For this reason all the politicians stood patiently shaking hands at every city ethnic festival this summer. "I haven't missed one," said Hogan, who complained of bruised fingers after the Lithuanian festival. Hogan has printed up dozens of "Italians for Hogan" and "Germans for Hogan" buttons, and Pascal made sure that one of his stops the day he announced his candidacy was Bud Paolini's crab house -- a favorite of East Baltimore's Italian community.

More than other candidates, Pascal, an Italian, is courting Baltimore's ethnic vote, hoping it will be his base for a statewide victory. An affluent businessman-turned-politician, Pascal reminds audiences that he grew up in a large Italian family above a bakery in New Jersey. He talks frequently about his "Italian-American heritage," immigrant grandparents and Catholic upbringing.

Although they account for less than 5 percent of the state's population, Jews vote out of proportion to their numbers -- as much as 90 percent of those registered go to the polls. They also contribute generously to political campaigns, providing, according to some estimates, nearly half of the $1,000 contributions for statewide races.

Baltimore's Jews have produced Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, House Speaker Cardin, former Gov. Marvin Mandel and Democratic Party Chairman Rosalie Abrams.

When Steny Hoyer campaigned in 1978 he learned some Yiddish words and carried a yarmulke. Harry Hughes threw aside his normal reserve during a recent preprimary Jewish festival to declare, "Today, we are all Jewish." Nearly every Sunday before the primary, candidates running for office staked out the corner in front of Shapiro's kosher food market. "I have yet to see that corner ignored before an election ," said Stanley Sollins, head of the influential Baltimore Jewish Council.

Pascal has met with some skepticism from the Jews because of his wife's presence on the board of a new television station, "Jesus Lives."

McGuirk's running mate, Lt. Gov. Samuel Bogley, hurt the campaign when he told one Jewish group of McGuirk's support for Israel and Israel bonds, instead of the candidate's position on Maryland's substantial issues. "It was like saying, 'You're black? I have a friend who is black,' " one Jewish supporter of McGuirk said.

The black community in Baltimore is half the city's population and the largest concentration of blacks in the state. Often blacks have not been active at the polls, but on occasion they have demonstrated their strength: In 1980 blacks helped guarantee Reagan's loss in Maryland; in this past primary, an unprecedented black turnout unseated an incumbent state's attorney who had become known as anti-black.

Dealing with Baltimore's black community begins with its state senators. There is a longstanding split in the black politicial community between the poorer east-side blacks and the more middle-class west-side ones. The ministers hold strong sway and must be courted in the political season.

The Hughes campaign has been a textbook study for wooing the black community. A year ago Hughes appointed civil rights activist Clarence Mitchell Jr., probably the best-known figure in Maryland's black community, to the University of Maryland's Board of Regents. That helped guarantee support by the powerful and prominent Mitchell clan, which includes U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell and State Sen. Clarence Mitchell III.

Hughes went to each senator -- carefully maintaining the east-west separation -- and got their support. He held press conferences to denounce a recent upsurge in cross-burnings. He was the only candidate to set up a separate committee -- his was called Black Marylanders for Hughes and included prominent and nonpolitical members of the community. He spoke at the graduation of Morgan State University, one of the state's predominantly black institutions. He appointed Allen Quille, a prominent black businessmen, to cochair his city reelection drive. (Pascal tried to get Quille, too.)

Finally, Hughes went to the ministers. The most prominent group, the Interdenominational Alliance, is considered as much a power-broker as any group in the city, putting out ballots on the Sunday before an election. Hughes hosted a breakfast for them at the Governor's Mansion to discuss his record.

Pascal has used alternative methods of wooing blacks. He got two well-known athletes, Baltimore Colts greats Lenny Moore and Jim Parker, to join his campaign. He set up a separate campaign office in the black community run by one of the ministers. He has spoken at their churches.

And Pascal visited the Afro-American newspaper, bringing with him a two-page, single-spaced list of accomplishments (Number 1 being making the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a legal county holiday), and asked them to consider backing a Republican.

The final step in wooing Baltimore involves a trip to the editorial offices of the Baltimore Sunpapers, the city's morning and Evening Sun.

There the editors meet with the candidates to decide which of them is worthy of an endorsement. A nod from the Sun is said to be worth several thousand votes in certain higher-income sections of Baltimore. The Sun's endorsement of underdog Hughes in 1978 has been credited with swinging an election, a notion the editors dispute, pointing to the dozens of losing candidates they have endorsed.

"I think we are a factor in the election but I don't think because of the Hughes experience it should be exaggerated," said Joseph L. Sterne, the morning Sun's editorial page editor. "There was a stampede for Hughes . By a quirk we actually set this thing off. I don't think our newspaper, any newspaper is really a kingmaker."

Nonetheless the impression persists, in part because the Sunpapers actively lobby in their editorial pages for the city and jump on those who attack it. And in part it is because the Sun, the only daily newspaper available across Maryland, sets the tone for statewide radio and television coverage. It also runs a clip-and-save election-day ballot of candidates--much like any ticket maker.

As a result, during the election season politicians look for hidden motives in the positioning of stories on the local page and the choice of words in editorials.

Hughes, Hogan and Sarbanes have visited the Sun offices and Pascal met Sterne in Ocean City to talk about the governor's race over a chicken dinner. Said one Pascal strategist: "Look, if you can spread out from this media center you win. Let's face it, why does the nation think William Donald Schaefer is the greatest mayor? Because the media says he is."