The dark pinstripes and cuffed pants looked out of place against the backdrop of bowling shirts and leisure jackets. So did the wavy brown hair and the button-down shirt. It all looked too sharp, too savvy, too . . . liberal.

But there was Stephen H. Sachs, so exhausted only minutes before that his light-blue eyes had appeared lidded and heavy with sleep, working his way through the crowd at Anne Arundel's Stoney Creek Democratic Club.

He never missed a beat, his brown shoes clicking against the linoleum floor as he sipped a beer and greeted each club member like a long-lost brother or sister. At 49, Sachs is blessed with a boyish face and an easy smile that makes him look no more than 35. Every name was remembered. The children were asked about.

Sachs, Maryland's attorney general, is running for governor. Running hard. In May, he visited 15 of the state's 23 counties, many more than once. The election he is pointing to is the Democratic primary that will take place Sept. 9, 1986, or 1,178 days from today. It is going to be a long campaign. Sachs wouldn't have it any other way.

Stoney Creek is the oldest Democratic club in Maryland, a bastion of old-time, good ole' boy politics. They drink beer served from plastic white buckets, play bingo once a week and dress up in their bucks and white shoes for the weekly meetings. They also deliver votes come election time.

This is a strange place to find Sachs, the man who ran against the old-time pols when he was first elected attorney general in 1978, the Northwest Baltimore, white collar, Jewish independent. Stoney Creek is not the kind of place where independence is served up with the beer.

But Sachs is greeted like an honorary member and his speech, full of anti-Republican rhetoric, dotted cleverly with anecdotes Sachs revels in telling, is greeted enthusiastically. They're cheering by the time Sachs finishes and almost before the applause has died someone is on his feet with a question.

"Mr. Sachs, are you runnin' for governor?"

Sachs has a standard reply for this question: "Of what state?" When the laughter simmers, he gives them the rest of the answer: "Yes, I expect to run for governor. I know a lot of politicians would play coy and would tell you they haven't thought about it yet, but I've thought about it, and I expect I will run."

There is nothing coy in Sachs' makeup. His performance at Stoney Creek is typical. He knows his audience disagrees with him on many things, that his FDR-Kennedy-liberal background is a source of contentiousness in this crowd. But he also knows there is common ground, that he can invoke little man versus big man rhetoric and that they will understand him.

He has been here before and he will be here again. By 1986 he hopes to be such a familiar and comfortable figure among the state's political activists that he will be their automatic gubernatorial choice. He used that strategy in his 1978 election, beginning his campaign as an unknown independent in summer 1976. Two years and hundreds of appearances and speeches later, he had lapped the field and only a couple of people even filed against him. He won with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

Now, having been reelected last November with 73 percent of the vote, Sachs, knowing that Gov. Harry Hughes cannot run for a third term, has his sights set squarely on the State House. His modus operandi makes more traditional politicians uneasy. Benjamin L. Cardin, the speaker of the House of Delegates, who is the other noncoy gubernatorial candidate, also is out campaigning.

"I don't want to be out there, I don't want to be involved in a four-year campaign," Cardin said. "But I have no choice."

No choice is exactly what Sachs wants to leave the others who might think of opposing him--Baltimore County Executive Donald B. Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. J. Joseph Curran Jr., Howard County Executive Hugh Nichols, even Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer--when it comes time to file in three years. He is hoping polls will show him so far in front that the contenders will drop by the wayside and look for other options.

Sachs' rise from an unknown who had trouble getting speaking engagements in his first campaign to a front-runner for governor has not been built on flash, wit and media manipulation--although Sachs is flashy, witty, a media genius, extraordinarily accessible and the master of the buzzword. He knows a good quote when he hears it. In denying that he is flashy, Sachs said breezily, "In the land of the bland, the one-eyed man is king." But the key to Sachs is his methodical hard work and organization. Always, in describing Sachs, friends and enemies alike say one thing: "He does his homework."

For Sachs, the next three years are homework. When it comes time for his final exam in 1986, Sachs will not be caught unprepared.

Stephen Howard Sachs, only child of Leon and Shirley Sachs, grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore. He was always a well-behaved youngster who did well in school and rarely got in trouble.

Once, he and a friend broke a window with a BB gun. Once, in junior high school, he and Melvin A. Steinberg, now president of the State Senate, played hookey and went to see a movie, "Ivan the Terrible." That appears to have been the extent of Sachs' misbehavior as a boy.

At Friends School, he was a 5-foot-7, 140-pound goalie on the lacrosse team. Nickname: Sive. He was president of the students council at Haverford and earned a Fulbright to go to Oxford in 1954. After that came two years in the Army and Yale law school.

There, he said, his major accomplishment was meeting Sheila Kleinman on a blind date. She was a sophomore at Vassar who got talked into going to a Yale-Dartmouth football game with him on a weekend she was visiting her brother in New Haven, Conn.

When they met Sachs was 24, Kleinman, 17. She wasn't too impressed with him at first: He emphasized the "ph" in the spelling of his name and finished a lot of his sentences with French phrases. "He was really quite pompous," she says now. He also never stopped smoking, wore three-piece suits and oozed intensity. But he turned out to be charming and funny, and they were married two years after the blind date.

Shortly after law school, Sachs served three years as an assistant U.S. attorney under Joseph D. Tydings. It was during these days, which Sachs still talks about with a starry-eyed look, that he acquired his love of the good chase, the thrill for, as he still puts it, "putting bad guys in jail."

He was U.S. attorney from 1967 to 1970, chasing special interests all across Maryland. He was best known for prosecuting the Catonsville Nine, the antiwar protesters, in an emotional trial that leaves a lump in Sachs' throat even today. The most vivid moment of that trial came when Sachs, as prosecutor, was asked by the judge if he would object to the defendants singing The Lord's Prayer as they awaited the jury's return with a verdict.

"Not only do I not object, I would consider it rather appropriate," Sachs answered in the hushed, packed courtroom. He can still remember that trial almost moment to moment.

After leaving the U.S. attorney's office, he became a successful trial attorney, defending, among others, former FBI director L. Patrick Gray during the Watergate scandal. His style in the courtroom then was much like his style as a politician today: polished, articulate and forceful. But by 1976, Sachs found himself bored with private practice.

In 1974, Sachs had thought briefly about running for attorney general before getting caught up in the Gray trial. When Robert Embry, the former Housing and Urban Development Department administrator, took him to lunch and told him he thought it was time to run, Sachs quickly went along with the idea.

By November 1974 he had held his first fund-raiser--two years before the election. He was an "independent," Democrat, breaking with the tradition that held that candidates for attorney general run as part of the ticket. He ran against the established politicians, the machine Democrats, the "muldoons," of Marvin Mandel.

He won easily and in 1982 could have never left his house and been reelected easily. Instead, Sachs campaigned nonstop and spent $200,000, including a good deal of money on television in the Washington area where he was not as well known. He also put out a 33-page reelection report, every word his own, detailing his accomplishments. Clearly, this effort was not because he feared his opposition.

It was because, as Sachs put it, "There is life after 1982."

The attorney general's inner circle had been at work for almost two hours now and they were tired. Sachs sat at one end of the conference table in his characteristic pose--slouched, one leg dangling over the arm of his chair, reading glasses on the table in front of him. Behind him was a wall full of pictures: Sachs with Bobby Kennedy, Sachs with Joe Tydings, Sachs with his family, drawings of the "independent," Sachs on a white horse.

Around him were his top five lawyers. There had been considerable arguing during this session, something Sachs encourages. Now, decisions were being made, and when Sachs was adamant, Sachs got his way. He was, after all, elected attorney general to make tough decisions.

"And," he said later, "we were arguing about my awards."

Awards?

Awards. The meeting had been held to decide which of the 200 assistant attorneys general employed by Maryland would receive the third annual exceptional service awards. Or, as they are called by Sachs' people, "The Stevies."

The existence of these awards and the seriousness with which they are taken by Sachs and the people around him are symptomatic of Sachs' five-year regime as attorney general. There is a sense of righteousness that almost borders on self-righteousness. And there is certainly an ego at work. Anyone who knows Sachs, even those who love him dearly, say he is fueled as much by ego as anything else. Sachs himself laughs at that statement and says, "Why deny the obvious?"

But there also is among the people working for Sachs a real sense of doing good, of being public servants, of being, as Sachs pledged he would be in 1978, "The People's Lawyer."

He has resuscitated the consumer protection division of his office, built up the antitrust division and vigorously pursued criminal investigations, prosecuting more people in four years than had been prosecuted during the previous 10 years by his predecessor, Francis B. Burch.

Sachs has one lawyer--and a staff of about 40 volunteers--whose sole job is to respond to letters from private citizens. Some say this is not the attorney general's job. Sachs says it is a critical part of the job.

Through natural attrition and because of the expansion of the state bureacuracy, Sachs has hired 180 lawyers since he became attorney general, 90 of them women, 23 of them black and most in their 20s or 30s. He banned private practice within the office, then went to the legislature and got more money for the assistants.

Most important, Sachs, in the minds of most, has changed the image of the attorney general's office. Where once it was a stopping-off place for young lawyers who couldn't find top jobs with large firms or a nesting place for middle-aged lawyers who also had private practices on the side, it now is an aggressive law firm filled with eager young lawyers, many of them with Legal Services backgrounds.

The zeal Sachs has brought to the job has not been without controversy. He was heavily criticized in 1979 when he placed a spy in the Anne Arundel County public defender's office to check on allegations the public defender was doing private business on state time. Although the public defender, Joseph Touhey, eventually paid $20,000 to the state as a result of a civil lawsuit Sachs filed against him, the incident is not one Sachs relishes talking about.

"Steve defends the case to me," said Paul Strain, one of Sachs' two deputies. "But I know he must have regrets about it."TT hat same year, Sachs' office investigated allegations that Del. Francis J. Santangelo T (D-Prince George's) had used his influence to win state contracts for a company in which he held an interest. The investigation ended embarrassingly when grand jurors refused to indict Santangelo and accused the attorney general's office of leaking information about the case to The Washington Post. Sachs angrily denies that charge. Santangelo was eventually given a mild reprimand by the House of Delegates for his actions.

Sachs did get an indictment against then Harford County Executive Thomas J. Barranger on extortion charges. But Barranger was acquitted of the charges. He later pleaded no contest to one charge of violation of the election laws and was fined $250.

The attorney general's office also has had difficulty making its Medicaid fraud cases stick. Although Sachs points out that the unit has recovered about $900,000 for consumers, there have been several cases where 18 month investigations have ended without indictment. In others, the trials have resulted in defeat.

Beyond some of the specific cases where his critics accuse him of overzealousness, Sachs has more generally been accused of going too far in his pursuit of "the bad guys."

He also has been aggressive in his pursuit of attention. When former vice president Spiro T. Agnew was ordered to pay the state $268,000 because of kickbacks he received as governor, Sachs journeyed to Annapolis, called in the media and posed, handing Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein the check. Sachs also has "volunteered" to appear biweekly on a Baltimore television station's noon news to explain the work being done for the people by his office.

Sachs is unpopular in the business community, a fact that disturbs him because big business controls big money and no gubernatorial candidate wants too many well-heeled enemies.

It's no coincidence that early this year Sachs set up a "Businessmen's Advisory Group" when he was in the midst of a controversial legal battle with Fairchild Industries over hazardous waste dumpings made by the company in Western Maryland. (The state won the case, and Fairchild has announced it'll move its corporate headquarters in Montgomery County to Virginia, although it has denied the move is related to the court case.) The business group's job: Advise the attorney general on the needs of the state's business community. Sachs swears his move was only slightly political.

"The business climate in this state is important to me," he said. "That doesn't mean if Fairchild is dumping illegally, I won't prosecute. But I don't want to be perceived as antibusiness. That wouldn't be good even if I were never running for office again."

Three years ago, Sachs infuriated the lending industry by coming out against deregulation and helping to block legislation that would have made Maryland's law similar to Delaware's. In recent years four Maryland banks have moved their credit-card operations to Delaware.

This year, Sachs reversed his position and backed a sweeping deregulation bill. Although he says now he would have liked to have seen more consumer protections in the legislation, he did favor the bill that was signed into law by Gov. Harry Hughes last month. Some saw Sachs' reversal as political. It is one thing for an attorney general to do battle with the banking community, it is another thing for a gubernatorial candidate to do so.

Sachs has played to mixed reviews in the General Assembly, where his main job is to issue opinions on the constitutionality of legislation. Some legislators complain his opinions are not forthcoming quickly enough. Other say they may be slower, but they are more thorough and more correct than the ones issued by Sachs' predecessor, Burch.

Among his colleagues in the legal profession Sachs receives high marks. "Those who argue that he has been too aggressive or too zealous are lawyers who are mediocre," said Ronald Shapiro, who was solicitor general of the state before forming his own law firm. "The most important thing he has done there is make the attorney general's office a real law office."

"He's an activist boss," said Strain, whose reputation as a litigator ranks only slightly behind Sachs. "I think to some degree he misses the courtroom and that's why he's argued both cases we've had in the Supreme Court since he's been here. But he's good with the assistants. If he wants to yell at somebody it will usually be Elly Deputy Attorney General Eleanor M. Carey or me because he knows we can take it. He won't cut the younger people off at the knees if they make a mistake."

The most recent controversy Sachs has been involved in came as a result of the program he is most proud of. In 1979, shortly after he took office, Sachs received a letter from the state's Mental Health Association accusing the four state mental health hospitals of violating the law in their treatment of the retarded.

After a four-month investigation, Sachs decided the group's accusations were correct. Since then, about 300 patients have been moved from institutions to smaller, less controlled living situations. In the state bureaucracy, they are known as "The Sachs Population," and Sachs proudly tells the story in almost all his speeches.

It is an example of his activist role as attorney general and of his theory of "preventive law," where the state's agencies are concerned, trying to make an agency change if it is violating the law before it is prosecuted.

This past January, Sachs suggested in a speech to the state's Mental Health Association that all the large mental institutions in the state should be closed by the year 2000. The speech created a storm; critics claimed Sachs didn't understand the cost involved in such an undertaking, hadn't thought about the severely mentally ill who need round-the-clock attention and was, in short, sticking his nose where it didn't belong to get some publicity.

Sachs angrily disagrees. "I understand exactly what's involved. I knew what I was saying. You set a goal to do something like that to keep people moving in the right direction. The people who criticized me for that don't know what they're talking about."

Sachs' style has never been to back away from a position. "He's the most self-assured person I've ever known," Carey said. "He's the Great Persuader, completely self-confident. He knows how to touch people's emotions with words. If you don't agree with him sooner, you will probably agree with him later."

To understand the thoroughness of the Sachs approach to campaigning, one needs only to look at what he has done in the first five months of this year.

In the last few months, various Sachs friends have held small parties in their homes, inviting about 25 couples to each. The guests are wealthy, influential and, in some cases, people who have previously said they don't like Sachs. They are asked to come and take another look.

Already, Sachs has banked more than $50,000 and that's without twisting any arms. There is, right now, a budget of $1.2 million for the 1986 campaign.

In May, among other stops, Sachs appeared at several Jefferson-Jackson day fund-raising dinners around the state; spoke at the opening of a new Democratic Club in Frederick; installed the officers at three different Democratic clubs; spoke on constitutional law to a class at Towson State; addressed honor society inductees at a Baltimore County high school; helicoptered to Salisbury and Ocean City for speeches on the problems of the mentally ill; appeared at a Rotary Club dinner in Cumberland; appeared at a United Fund dinner in Prince George's County; addressed two groups in Montgomery County; spoke at a service for slain police officers in Annapolis; and judged a spelling bee in Anne Arundel County.

Clearly, he will not be outworked. Sachs also is an organizer. Already, there is a campaign office stacked with more than 12,000 names collected over the years. Each is a potential volunteer. There, Frank Gallagher Jr., a Georgetown law student is working full time this summer. Recently, when 20 Montgomery County precinct chairmen were elected, Gallagher drafted and mailed--after receiving Sachs' approval--a letter congratulating each winner.

One person Sachs has not sat down with is Baltimore's mayor, William Donald Schaefer. Their relationship the last five years has been no better than cool. Sachs does not want Schaefer in the 1986 campaign and is working hard to win the mayor over, endorsing his reelection campaign this year before it has even been announced.

"Look, I happen to have a lot of respect for the mayor. He's done a great job for this city," said Sachs, glancing out the window of his spacious office in downtown Baltimore. He is touchy on this subject. "Certainly I recognize that his presence in the race would change things considerably. I would be an underdog, absolutely. The mayor is a celebrity. But it would be a merry chase. I wouldn't mind that; I like to compete."

Sachs has shown that willingness to compete with some intelligent political dice rolling.

Last summer, the race for the Baltimore state's attorney's seat became a bitter, racial battle between William Swisher, the white, blue-collar incumbent, and Kurt L. Schmoke, a black Harvard graduate. Most white politicians backed Swisher or steered clear. Six days before the election, Sachs stunned the establishment by endorsing Schmoke and then cutting radio commercials for him.

Sachs' endorsement of Schmoke angered many white, establishment politicians who supported Swisher. Some saw it as an example of political opportunism, Sachs, sensing Swisher was in trouble, jumped on the Schmoke bandwagon. To this, Sachs replies: "Why didn't they jump on there too if that was the case? It's easy, in hindsight to call it bandwagon jumping. The week of the election a lot of people thought I was crazy."

Opportunism or not, it made him a hero within the black community, which is increasingly becoming a major factor in statewide politics. "People will not forget anytime soon what Steve Sachs did," says Larry Gibson, Schmoke's campaign manager. "Whatever his reasons for doing it, he helped himself politically."

Everyone, including Cardin, acknowledges Sachs is the gubernatorial front-runner. But there are pitfalls in a four-year campaign. "You do run the risk of having everything you do and say perceived as being purely political," Gov. Hughes said. "But this is Steve's style. It's the way he got elected attorney general. He's comfortable with it."

Sachs describes the last six months as "Phase I." He wanted to make his intentions clear, wipe out any lingering rumors that he was interested in the Senate--Cardin and some others still insist that is what he will run for--and make it clear to everyone that his will be a well-organized, well-financed campaign.

That message has been delivered. Late last month, when Terri Marcell, chairman of Howard County's second-district Democratic club, sent out announcements of the May meeting, the speaker was listed as, "Stephen H. Sachs, attorney general and candidate for governor."

It is shortly after 6 p.m. on a breezy spring evening, and the Sachs family is updating one another on the day before heading in different directions for the evening. They are standing in various poses around the kitchen, which is the family's meeting room.

Steve and Sheila Sachs have lived in the modest but comfortable two-story house on Bramblton Road in Baltimore since 1965. Several times they considered moving, but their children, Elisabeth, 18, and Leon, 16, talked them out of it.

Now, Sachs is heading for his basement study to look up a Theodore Roosevelt quote he wants to use in a speech to a high school honor society that night. Sheila, who is a partner in a Baltimore law firm, and Elisabeth, who will enroll at Haverford this fall, are getting ready to go to their aerobic dancing class. Leon, like his father a lacrosse goalie, is about to go meet some friends.

The basement is Sachs' quiet place. Often at night he will change from the conservative suits, button-down shirts and old-fashioned brown shoes he wears seven days a week and go to the basement in his favorite old sweater--complete with holes under each arm--jeans and moccasins, to work.

Plastered on every wall are bumper stickers, signs and posters from political campaigns, including his opponents'. In the corner is his tiny study. There is a desk, three chairs, including a cushy armchair he reads in, and books. Everywhere you go in Sachs' life, you see books. He is a man who loves words.

In addition to the books, there is a newspaper clipping on the wall with a quote that was underlined by Sheila Sachs and given to her husband when he began his first political campaign. It is a quote from an Elizabethan author, John Webster:

"Vain the ambition of kings . . . Who seek by trophies and dead things . . . To leave a living name behind . . . And weave but nets to catch the wind."

As Sachs leaves to give two more speeches in a campaign that has barely begun, he pauses by the quote and taps it twice with his fingers. He smiles and charges up the steps and out the door, his face ablaze with confidence.