When the 17 candidates for U.S. senator from Maryland showed up last week for what they thought would be standard news interviews at a Baltimore television station, little did they know they were going to be featured as contestants in a quiz show that would reveal most of them as ignorant of current events.

Seventeen of the 19 registered candidates running in the Sept. 9 primary were asked five questions ranging from specifying the cause of the U.S. bombing of Libya to naming the prime minister of Israel and defining Stinger missiles.

Among the worst scores posted were those of the three major Democratic candidates: Rep. Michael D. Barnes, a subcommittee chairman on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who has promoted himself as a leader on foreign policy; Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski, a five-term House member from Baltimore, and Gov. Harry Hughes, who has occupied the State House for eight years. Neither Barnes nor Mikulski, for example, could name both the Israeli prime minister and his designated successor.

Republican Linda Chavez, a former White House aide, scored highest overall, answering four questions correctly. The top scorer among Democrats was Debra Freeman, a follower of political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., who answered three of the five questions correctly.

The questions, part of a three-part series concluding today on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), were asked by reporter Don Williams.

Barnes stumbled first when asked to name the current Israeli prime minister. He correctly noted that two parties formed a coalition government whose leaders will alternate in the top post -- Channel 13 gave him "an A for effort" for this -- but he incorrectly identified Yitzhak Shamir as the current prime minister.

Mikulski, on the other hand, knew that Shimon Peres holds the office, but when asked who would succeed him, she failed to say Shamir and replied instead, according to Williams, "Can we turn this thing off?"

Barnes was able to define Stinger missiles, which are hand-held antiaircraft weapons, but lost a half point because he did not know the United States had sent Stinger missiles to Saudi Arabia in 1984.

Hughes also slipped on half the question, but Mikulski answered all of it correctly.

The candidates also had problems when asked the name of the leader of the African National Congress, a major black nationalist group advocating the overthrow of the South African government.

Barnes, whose support for sanctions against the apartheid government in South Africa is a cornerstone of his campaign to win black support in the race, said, "The name slips my tongue."

Hughes answered simply, "I don't know the answer to that." Mikulski scored a zero by naming Jonas Savimbi, leader of a Reagan administration-backed resistance group fighting the Marxist-led government of Angola.

Another strikeout came from lawyer George Haley, one of two black candidates running for the GOP nomination and the brother of "Roots" author Alex Haley. His answer: "Sambo."

Barnes and Hughes and the two leading Republican candidates, Chavez and Baltimore businessman Richard Sullivan, were able to name "the specific terrorist incident" -- the bombing of a discotheque in West Germany -- that led to the U.S. bombing of Libya in March. But Mikulski missed by answering that there was not a single incident.

The only question Chavez missed asked where Maryland ranked in relation to other states in federal grants received in 1985. Only one of the 17 candidates gave the correct answer: 35th. That was one of Chavez's lesser known GOP opponents, hotel owner Michael Schaefer (who is no relation to Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, a Democratic candidate for governor).

Freeman, a self-proclaimed "public health expert" who has run for Congress twice against Mikulski, answered three of the five questions correctly, as did lesser known Republicans Horace Rich and Howard Greybur. Hughes and Sullivan answered 2 1/2 questions correctly, and Mikulski and Barnes tied at 1 1/2 each.

Some candidates took pains to avoid saying, "I don't know," if they were unsure of the correct answer. Haley, for example, defined Stinger missiles as "missiles that come forth into the nation." A. Robert Kaufman, a self-avowed Marxist and perpetual candidate in Baltimore who is running as a Democrat this year, named Peres as the prime minister of Israel. But when asked to name Peres' successor, Kaufman could only come up with: "A little Jewish fellow."

Williams said the station borrowed the quiz idea from a Boston affiliate. He said the interviews were conducted back to back over three days so that none of the candidates would have time to prepare. They were asked on the day of their interviews to participate in the quiz.

Although a few candidates objected, all agreed to answer the questions, Williams said. But he added that in some cases, "you could see the pain in their faces."

The candidates also were given an opportunity to say on the air whether they believed the quiz was fair.

Most said that it was, but one did not. "I don't think word game questions are really the criteria for what determines who's going to be a United States senator," Mikulski said.