ANNAPOLIS, NOV. 13 -- For Marvin Mandel, the morning began as an echo.

His phone began ringing at 6 a.m. with people from all over the country who wanted to talk to him. A bright young congressman was waiting at the reserved table at the downtown deli where Mandel has breakfast every day. He didn't get to the office until mid-morning, and by then there were stacks of telephone messages on his desk.

Just like the old days.

"One, two, three, four . . . . " Mandel began counting them and when he finally stopped he was at 52. "Florida. Philadelphia. California. I don't know how they all heard."

He was told that he's national news again. "Really," he said, as if he didn't know.

At the start, he was renowned as the scrappy Baltimore pol who set a brash and ambitious course for Maryland and used all of his streetwise political skills to take it there. At the end, his life had become a soap opera and the state he governed had become synonymous with greed and political corruption.

So now what?

Mandel claims vindication. "There wasn't one, not one person in the whole trial that ever testified I ever did anything wrong," Mandel said today. "I never dreamed it would end this way, but I knew that sooner or later it had to come out."

But to some, U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin's ruling Thursday only adds to the confusion and ambivalence that Marylanders feel about the Mandel years.

Yes, the mail fraud and racketeering charges against Mandel and his five codefendants must be overturned, Smalkin ruled. No, it did not mean that Mandel and the others were clean, he added.

"The people of Maryland, as a matter of natural law, have and have always had an inalienable right to good government," Smalkin wrote.

"A jury of 12 citizens found beyond a reasonable doubt that the {defendants} had deprived all the citizens of Maryland of that right. This conduct, however . . . cannot sustain a judgment that the defendants were guilty of federal crimes. A final answer to the question of {the defendants'} guilt or innocence, in any broader sense than that, must await the judgment of history."

"That's not vindication," said Ed Rovner, a former Mandel aide who now works for Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer. "He {Mandel} is too smart not to know that."

Rovner was one of Mandel's lieutenants in the shiny days after Mandel inherited the governership from Spiro T. Agnew. There was no statewide election; after Agnew became vice president, the legislature chose its popular House speaker, Mandel, to fill the term.

He was elected to a full term in 1970, and again in 1974.

The operative words in state government, one legislator remembered later, were "Marvin wants."

"The multilinguist in the tower of Babel" is what Rovner once called him, referring to Mandel's abilities to manipulate the lobbyists, stroke the legislators, even cultivate the bureaucracy.

"What I'd love to do after we worked a bill, after all the lobbying, the patronage, the arguing, was to go up in the gallery and stand off to the side where no legislators could see me and just watch the votes light up on the tote board," Mandel lobbyist Maurice Wyatt once told The Washington Post.

"I'd watch those red and green lights go on, and it would happen just like we knew it was going to."

Rovner said the team passed legislation "still a landmark for its time" on issues as diverse as regulating the building of power plants and handgun controls.

Mandel created the nation's first state-run insurance agency, began to regulate hospital costs, helped turn Friendship Airport into the first-class Baltimore-Washington International, began to build a subway in Baltimore and agreed to pay Maryland's share of Metro.

In 1972, Mandel was elected chairman of the National Governors' Conference.

"If you took a poll on his public record, I think Marvin Mandel would score very high," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the former Maryland House speaker who now represents the parts of Baltimore that served as Mandel's political training ground.

But in the middle of his 10-year term, Mandel's life became, as he put it today, "the longest continuing soap opera."

In July 1973, Mandel announced that he was leaving Barbara, his wife of 32 years, to marry "the woman I love," Jeanne B. Dorsey, a Southern Maryland divorcee with whom he had a longstanding relationship.

The national media staked out the governor's mansion where, for five months, Barbara Mandel refused to move out.

Some of Mandel's associates blamed Jeanne for changing the man they knew, for his new interest in French restaurants, his new style of clothes, his affection for gifts and trips paid for by people who did business with the state.

Today, Mandel says: "No one man could ever have been as fortunate as I have been to have Jeanne."

Mandel's divorce settlement was estimated at the time to have cost $400,000, and one of those who helped him pay was Irvin Kovens, the millionaire Baltimore furniture store owner who was a longtime Mandel benefactor and political kingpin.

Rovner said Mandel changed. "The agony of Marvin Mandel . . . is that he had the capacity to become not just the best governor of Maryland but one of the best governors in history, or he had the capacity to pervert his office. In a wrestling match between his conscience and Irv Kovens, Irv Kovens won."

It was a rundown race track in Prince George's County that led to the 12-year legal battle over whether Mandel abused his office.

The Marlboro track was rather meaningless in 1971, because of its poor facilities and its relatively few racing days.

When Mandel vetoed legislation that would have provided additional racing days, Marlboro's owners were eager to sell.

The buyers were Kovens, former House majority leader W. Dale Hess and brothers William A. Rodgers and Harry W. Rodgers III. They concealed their ownership behind false names and documents designed by Ernest N. Cory, a Prince George's lawyer.

At the next legislative session, Mandel's friends lobbied behind the scenes to have Mandel's veto overturned, and it was. With the extra days, the track's value skyrocketed, but a scheme to obtain even more days was defeated when rumors of the track's true ownership circulated through Annapolis. Still, the partners sold the track at a handsome profit.

Mandel said he was unaware of what was going on all this time. But during the same period, Kovens and the others were financing trips for the Mandels, helped Mandel buy a diamond bracelet for his wife and then helped pay for his divorce settlement.

They also cut him in on two lucrative real estate deals.

Prosecutors never proved that Mandel's role in the race track was directly related to the gifts. But the major favors, including a $40,000 portion of an Eastern Shore farm, were given when the race track legislation was pending, prosecutors said.

Mandel paid $150 for his farm property but his name was erased from corporate minutes and his stock held in the name of William Rodgers.

After one mistrial, a jury found Mandel and the others guilty in August 1977 of defrauding the citizens of Maryland of their right to "conscientious, loyal {and} faithful . . . services" of the governor.

In January 1979, an appeals court overturned the conviction, and Mandel returned to the State House to complete the final 45 1/2 hours of his second term.

In July 1979 the full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.

The following April, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Mandel was disbarred and served 19 months in the minimum-security prison at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida before President Reagan commuted his sentence in December 1981.

The twists and turns of his case have created "confusion as to whether he did something wrong," said Cardin.

Some saw Mandel as being singled out for punishment; others attributed his predicament to changing standards in government ethics.

Nevertheless, voters in 1978 picked as Mandel's successor a squeaky-clean longshot named Harry Hughes, the antithesis of Mandel, who encouraged a greater role in government by the legislature and dismantled Mandel's powerful patronage system.

But the political pendulum, by definition, swings both ways. When Marylanders chose Hughes' successor in 1986, they looked past clean-government Attorney General Stephen Sachs to Mandel's longtime and loyal friend, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Schaefer is one of the first people Mandel called when his conviction was overturned.

The law, too, is different in 1987. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the mail fraud statute could not be applied to the loss of such intangibles as honest government.

If the government's appeal is unsuccessful, it is likely that Mandel will get his law license back. Mandel already was becoming more active in Annapolis, acting during Schaefer's first legislative session as an unofficial adviser to the governor and to members of the legislature.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who served as Maryland Senate president while Mandel was governor, said it is too late to vindicate Mandel completely. "I don't think it is possible to restore Mandel's name or anyone else's name" after such a public trial and imprisonment, he said.

As for Mandel, he is "elated," but cautious.

Asked if the "soap opera" is over, he replied, "I don't know."

"The government is going to appeal. But I would think . . . . " He paused. "Enough is enough."