A few weeks after he took office, Harry Hughes, the unassuming and unexpected victor in Maryland's 1978 gubernatorial contest, asked the state's top budget officials to brief him each Saturday morning on Maryland's finances.

The officials dressed in blue jeans and work shirts for their first meeting with the new governor and found Hughes in a tie and jacket. Taking their cue, the budget officers returned the next Saturday sporting suits and ties -- only to find Hughes this time wearing slacks and a work shirt.

"I didn't know what I was supposed to wear," shrugged Hughes apologetically. "Harry," said the bemused budget chief, "you're the governor. You can wear whatever you want."

That incident on a winter morning in Annapolis goes to the core of any attempt to understand Harry Hughes' tenure as governor. Despite 16 years in the legislature and six years as a cabinet secretary, this lanky native of a small Eastern Shore town seemed naively unsure of his power and role when he arrived at the statehouse.

Hughes' tenure has been a politically difficult one at times. His deliberative style, reserved manner and intentionally arms-length relationship with the legislature led to criticism that he was indecisive and weak, particularly in dealing with the state's troubled transportation and prison systems.

"There was a feeling after 1981 that this was going to be the Jimmy Carter of Maryland," said one Democratic associate.

Today Hughes has shaken off those difficulties. He appears at ease as governor, leader of the Democratic Party, chief executive officer of the $6.2 billion corporation that is Maryland, and the most powerful -- and according to polls, most popular -- man in the state.

Campaigning for reelection, Hughes, 55, speaks confidently of accomplishments that include keeping the state solvent and scandal-free, and protecting the poor from the harshest of Reagan administration cuts. And he seems to have resolved the most critical problem of much of his term -- how to use the levers of power without jeopardizing his promise of integrity and honesty.

Pat Hughes, the governor's wife and possibly his most important political adviser, said, "The nature of the beast the job is that you have to conquer it."

Harry Roe Hughes, a progressive Democrat who grew up in the Caroline County town of Denton, was swept into governor's office in 1978 by the largest margin of victory in Maryland in this century. A lawyer and lapsed athlete with a dry sense of humor and a belief that success comes from hard work rather than from headlines, Hughes promised a return of integrity and honesty to a state that had recently seen dozens of its officials, including two governors, tarred by political corruption.

He spoke of no grand design for the state, portraying himself as a tinkerer who would consolidate past gains, streamline government and decentralize the executive power accumulated by former governor Marvin Mandel, one of those convicted for political misdeeds.

"Harry is not a burning-issues kind of leader," said Steny Hoyer, a friend and 1978 opponent who is now a congressman from Prince George's County.

Despite the margin of victory, Hughes' election was the product of a bitter campaign in which the early front-runners attacked each other on television debates, ignoring Hughes, who appeared steady, quiet, unscathed and, ultimately, gubernatorial. When Hughes won, even his closest advisers were unprepared.

"There was a certain amount of legitimate panic," said Baltimore lawyer Michael McWilliams, who helped run the campaign and headed the transition team for the new government. "It dawned on us, hey, you're going to become governor. Maybe we should think about what you're going to do as governor."

The top priority of the Hughes administration, one which was to set the tone for the entire term, was to demonstrate a break with the past, a conscious effort to be "unlike Mandel" and prove that this administration was as clean and different as candidate Hughes had fashioned himself.

"I really think the people wanted something different," said Hughes. "They wanted a calm, deliberate, open and much less political government, and that's what we wanted to give them."

Appointments were to be handled by resumes and not a state senator's say-so. Support for legislation was based on merit. State limousines were abandoned. There was no administration lobbyist on the floor of the legislature to hand out race track passes in exchange for a few votes. The governor's mansion was to be called by its official name, Government House. There would be no private breakfast meetings for the powers of the legislature.

"In the beginning he kept saying that the General Assembly was the policy-making body in the state," said one aide. "He believed that. I guess he read it in the constitution."

Hughes spent much of the first two years doing what other governors had left to staff. Closeted in his office, he spent hours poring over bills and the small details of state budget, much as he had when serving as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Rarely was he seen mingling with legislators who would ultimately vote on his programs.

"I think he was very apprehensive about his lack of knowledge about the whole state system," said a lobbyist. "He was concerned about how he would be able to get a handle on all the things the state is involved in. He wanted to know all the ramifications. But it meant that no one ever saw him. You'd go into meetings with him and he would simply nod and say, 'thank you.' "

While the effort to be different proved the point, it also created problems for Hughes that lingered for nearly three years of his term. It created an "us- versus-them" mentality between the governor's mostly inexperienced staff and senators and delegates who had flourished under the old system.

When legislators -- and sometimes cabinet officers -- publicly criticized Hughes for failing to communicate his desires, he would complain to aides, "Don't they read the newspapers?"

There was no administration package of bills and no lobbyist that first year -- aides monitored the status of bills on a computer. Hughes frequently was unaware of what the General Assembly was doing and often he seemed to be simply following behind, causing some legislators to dub him the "me too" governor.

While these problems were political and mostly of concern to the denizens of Maryland's statehouse, they nonetheless were news and contributed to an image of an overwhelmed governor. The impression was aggravated by Hughes' public vaccillations on a host of governmental items.

The governor and his associates object to the characterization of Hughes as aloof, indecisive, a man who has allowed the state to flounder. "I am not aloof," Hughes says adamantly. "We have tried not to operate government on a crisis basis but rather through deliberate and open evaluation."

Said his wife Pat: "He is cautious, which as far as I'm concerned is not a pejorative word. He has to live with his decisions and now so does Maryland."

By Hughes' third year in office, the impression had grown to politically dangerous proportions. The governor had vacillated on a gasoline tax and when finally he introduced one it was killed by a legislature that felt the proposal was weak. He seemed unable to figure out how to bring order to a disorganized and debt-ridden transportation department that legislators claimed Hughes should have addressed two years before.

He attempted a major restructuring of horse racing in Maryland but sent it to the General Assembly so late in its term and with so little political preparation that it almost was guaranteed to fail.

And Hughes was forced, under fire, to rescind his liberal prisons policies. Having abandoned new prison construction to focus on prisoner rehabilition and early release, Hughes reversed his efforts after a grand jury indicted 27 work-release inmates for committing new crimes while under state supervision. The charges were thrown out but Hughes sacked his controversial corrections chief as news reports began sounding like political obituaries for Harry Hughes.

It was at that point that Hughes began to change.

"You reach a point where you get concerned about an image that's been created about being aloof and low-key and ineffective," he said recently. "You realize you have to do something to change it, even if it's not true and just being cast about by some reporters and politicians. So you become more aggressive. Perception is a reality."

To get better and more frequent press coverage, Hughes hired a new press secretary and an assistant with experience in broadcast media. He developed a strong administration package of bills including a gasoline tax, an increase in interest rate ceilings to keep banks from fleeing the state and broad initiatives for dealing with Reagan budget cuts. He agreed to push for new prisons.

And he began taking political steps necessary to get his proposals through the General Assembly intact. Legislators were called to the governor's office. A group given gubernatorial assistance on one issue was strongly urged to come up with support on another. A few appointments were made to solve sticky political problems.

Publicly asserting leadership over the government became a more important theme than the old issue of integrity. "It began to be obvious," said William Boucher, Hughes' friend and chief fund-raiser, "that the integrity issue had been made clear."

The effort worked: All but one major administration initiative was passed, Hughes received widespread acclaim for his now-strong stewardship, and most of the criticism of his ability to govern had subsided.

On the governmental front, House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin sums up Hughes' tenure: "He hasn't built monuments during his four years but he's been willing to be progressive on social issues and social programs and conservative on fiscal ones."

Hughes opened up the appointments process to bring in more women and minorities; pursued promised economic development and tax relief; managed to absorb without too much dislocation roughly $100 million in lost federal aid; increased welfare and unemployment benefits, and pushed strongly for the deinstitutionalization of the mentally retarded. At the same time Hughes did not raise general taxes.

Despite the new more aggressive image, Hughes said he is basically the same low-key fellow who upset the experts with his 1978 victory.

He is still a very private person, the son of a strong-willed schoolteacher, with simple tastes: He prefers a hamburger and Tab or coffee to a lunch at one of Annapolis' restaurants; he goes to movies only on vacation; shuns bars where most politicians transact business, preferring an occasional beer or Jack Daniels and water in the privacy of his office with a few staff members, his feet propped up on his desk. He still seems awkward in large gatherings and is known as the politician least comfortable with small talk.

Looking back on his four years as governor he says: "I think I was experienced, but nobody is experienced enough who isn't governor. Things happen and you change a little emphasis there. There was more stroking necessary than I thought. With any job you should improve the longer you're in it and frankly I think I'm a better governor today than I was four years ago."

Former acting governor Blair Lee III, who lost to Hughes in 1978 but remains a longtime friend, said, "The first part of this administration was a process of disabusing Hughes of a bunch of ideas that were out-and-out wrong. But he snapped out of it. The Mandel stuff was part of his act, his number and it's only now getting into proportion. You can't be governor and be apolitical and be effective. Harry has learned that."