Chase Manhattan Corp., hoping to change the face of banking in Maryland by opening branches in the lucrative Baltimore-Washington market, has made a formal offer to state officials to acquire the financially troubled Merritt Commercial Savings and Loan Association of Baltimore and two healthier thrifts in Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, industry and government sources said today.

"We are standing by and ready to go," said one Chase official, who asked not to be identified by name. "We have made an offer and are now waiting for the state to act."

Chase's offer to Maryland, which was presented to state Economic Development Secretary Thomas H. Maddux on Tuesday night, includes the acquisition of Merritt, which reported having $340 million in assets earlier this year; Friendship Savings and Loan of Bethesda, with $300 million in assets; and Chesapeake Savings and Loan Association of Annapolis, with $100 million in assets, sources said.

Industry experts and state officials familiar with Chase's offer said it represents a bold expansion bid that holds the potential of giving Chase an early commercial banking foothold in a broad, customer-rich area and easing the crisis that shook Maryland's thrift industry in mid-May.

State officials stressed that the offer by Chase, the third-largest bank company in the nation, has not yet been accepted and would require the General Assembly to amend state law to allow the out-of-state bank to convert thrifts to commercial branches.

Nonetheless, one savings and loan executive familiar with the ongoing negotiations said, "In terms of getting Merritt off their hands, the state people are giddy about Chase's offer."

Merritt, which reported assets of roughly $340 million earlier this year, voluntarily went into state conservatorship in May after reports about its management and that of Old Court Savings and Loan Association of Baltimore sparked customer runs at those and other thrifts.

The benefit to Chase in acquiring Merritt is the jump it would get on other giant banks in establishing branches in Maryland. Chase would have been allowed to begin limited branch banking in Maryland by next July if it met stiff investment and job-creation requirements imposed by the legislature earlier this year. But if its acquisition offer is approved later this summer, it could open branches well ahead of its own schedule, Chase officials said.

"We're coming into Maryland anyhow, but we're willing to pay a premium to come in early," said one company official. "Acquiring Merritt is that premium."

Friendship and Chesapeake, which are widely regarded as well-run institutions, have not won federal deposit insurance but represent a sound financial base that Chase could use to offset any risky loans made by Merritt, sources said.

Chase, which has increased the pace of its negotiations in the past two weeks, performed audits of Friendship and Chesapeake and gave the two institutions clean bills of health, sources said.

Chesapeake President Art Silber confirmed today that he had met with Chase officials but declined further comment. Friendship officers could not be reached for comment.

It remained unclear today what the precise cost of acquiring the three thrifts will be for Chase Manhattan, which has $86.3 billion in assets. Two banking experts suggested the cost would be quite high, saying that Chase made a "generous and very fair" offer for Chesapeake.

Louis G. Panos, press secretary for Gov. Harry Hughes, declined comment on Chase's reported offer but did say that state officials had been negotiating with Chase and several other large institutions about acquiring Merritt. "Nothing is final," Panos said.

However, reports of Chase's offer renewed speculation here about the possibility of Hughes calling the legislature into special session around Labor Day to approve the needed banking law changes.

"A special session is a given if an out-of-state institution makes a clear, firm offer to buy one or more of the shaky domestic thrifts," said Roger D. Redden, a Baltimore lawyer who met with Hughes and a dozen other state officials early this morning to discuss the S&L crisis.

Redden, who has been one of Hughes' closest advisers since the onset of the crisis, expressed optimism about finding a buyer for Merritt. "We're like a boat getting closer to the dock," he said. "There's no line over the side yet, but we're getting closer."