The pols in Maryland have stashed those old second-banana jokes about vice presidents and lieutenant governors -- and with good reason. Suddenly the hottest contest going in the Free State is between two veteran vote-getters who are dropping powerful positions to scrap for a crack at the biggest non-job on the ballot this fall: lieutenant governor.

* The duties of the office, by constitutional definition and by actual count, are zero. But look who's in theju Democratic primary seeking to succeed incumbent Lt. Gov. J. Joseph Curran:

Parren J. Mitchell, eight-term congressman from Baltimore City, dean of Maryland's congressional delegation, holder of prime committeeju assignments and a member of one of the best-known families in the state, is on a ticket with Stephen Sachs,ju the state attorney general, who is seeking the party's nomination for governor.

Melvin Steinberg of Baltimore County, president of the Maryland State Senate, 20-year member of the state legislature, labor lawyer, businessman, is running with governor-candidate William Donald Schaefer, mayor of Baltimore.

Their joint entry has turned what looked to be a Schaefer rout into an up-for-grabs competition tipping now toward the Sachs camp.

To see the difference that Mitchell makes, George's County.

Before Mitchell joined up, the veteran politicians in Prince George's were hardly flocking to Sachs. It was more neck and neck between Schaefer and Wait-and-See. But in Prince George's, where blacks have been a growing percentage of the electorate, smart politicians of any color recognize the symbolism as well as substance in the statewide candidacy of Mitchell, who is already the highest-ranking black officeholder in Maryland. While Schaefer has his own strong ties to many black voters, especially in Baltimore, the Mitchell candidacy is not one that political organizations in Prince George's are eager to oppose. For now, it means more endorsements of Wait-and-See -- with frequent glances toward Sachs-Mitchell.

What about any possible backlash? That's always an issue when new ground may be broken. But it can be overrated, as Douglas Wilder proved brilliantly in Virginia on his way to becoming lieutenant governor and the first black elected to statewide office. Like Wilder, Mitchell has the credentials, charisma and savvy to campaign effectively not simply as a black candidate but as a candidate -- with deep roots in his state and a grasp of issues appealing to all voters.

When Mitchell's candidacy was announced, a Schaefer statement criticized Sachs for making a "narrow appeal" to black voters -- which, quite aside from its racial assumption, may prove way off base. It would be equally wrong to term Schaefer's choice of Steinberg an appeal to Jewish voters. Just as Mitchell brings complementary talents to Sachs, Steinberg gives Schaefer a running mate who knows as much as anyone about how the state legislature works and what suburban voters care about.

What Sachs-Mitchell vs. Schaefer-Steinberg may well turn out to be now is a tighter race producing more voter interest in major state government issues: budget, prisons, the Chesapeake Bay, public education and health care. There may also be a difference in political style, with more of the old-liners from the Marvin Mandel school lining up behind Schaefer and others looking to a newer kind of coalition.

What the next lieutenant governor actually will do in office may not matter, but how those who seek the office perform between now and September could have a direct effect on the course of the state over the next four years.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.