''The governor and I . . . , '' Melvin Steinberg says, and then his voice trails off somewhere between his subject and a predicate just out of reach.
The lieutenant governor of Maryland is trying to be subtle. There are reports that Steinberg and William Donald Schaefer are not the best of pals these days, and Steinberg does not wish to throw any more logs onto this particular verbal fire.
Already, there is talk that the governor is miffed with Steinberg and Steinberg is miffed with Schaefer. The governor reportedly didn't like Steinberg on the radio, debating his Republican opponent. Steinberg reportedly doesn't like being overlooked in Schaefer's campaign ads. In the very week it's revealed their re-election campaign has raised $2.3 million and the Republican Shepards barely $100,000, there are reported gnawing differences between the two men about financial tactics and overkill.
And now, a week before election day, here is Steinberg being asked how many of these differences are true and how many of them should mean anything to anyone.
''The governor and I,'' says Steinberg, starting again, ''are different.''
This is known as understatement. Steinberg is a man comfortable shooting from the lip, a quipster, a teller of stories, a man equally comfortable in a crowd or inside his own skin. His boss is none of the above.
Intense in the best of times, Schaefer becomes frenetic and gloomy in election seasons. With victory all but universally predicted, the governor remains inwardly unsatisfied and outwardly unconvinced. More money needs to be raised, more voters wooed. This could be his political swan song. He wants not merely a triumph but a kind of career electoral summing-up, a community love letter saying: Yes, we appreciate all you've done for us.
''The governor's a very uptight person during elections,'' Steinberg is saying now. ''It's tremendous emotional strain for him. He gives a speech and gets 98 of 100 people on his side, I say, 'Holy cow, 98 to 2.' He says, 'Those two guys . . . '
''You know, the governor is two different people. Privately, he's one of the most sensitive, caring people. If I've got a problem, I can go right to him. But, you know, I've got a wife, I've got kids, I've got grandchildren. This business is his whole life.''
To some, it has also seemed Schaefer's campaign, and not Steinberg's. Four years ago, the campaign ads all stressed the two men in tandem. This time around, the link is Schaefer and Maryland. Steinberg's an afterthought.
''Listen,'' Steinberg says, ''all the big public relations people said that's the way to go. Stress the governor. I said, 'Fine with me. They'll still pull the lever for both of us.' I get around enough, I don't need the ego stroking. That's not smart, it's just emotional to get upset.
''Are there people who are upset? Sure. People around me say, 'Where are you, I don't see your name in the ads.' I say, 'I'm not a newcomer, I'm an old-fashioned guy. He's the boss.' ''
The boss has a history of ducking debates. He disliked them as mayor, ducked them four years ago, ignores all Republican pleas for a public airing of issues this time around. But Steinberg went his own way, debating opponent Lois Shepard on WCBM radio a few weeks ago.
Reportedly, this became a bone of contention between Schaefer and Steinberg. Steinberg says otherwise.
''I saw him a few hours after the debate,'' Steinberg says. ''He asked me how it went. I said, 'Pretty good.' He said, 'Mickey, you like that stuff. You're good at it. I don't like that stuff.' Everything I said was for him. So what's the problem?
''We're different personalities, and we both understand that. I'm happy going to Manny's and getting a corned beef sandwich and kibitzing. He goes to Hardee's or Roy Rogers. I listen to country music. He listens to talk shows on the radio and takes everything personally.''
Even with polls showing him far outdistancing Republican Bill Shepard, Schaefer's a bleeder. Even with vast money in the bank and Shepard broke, the governor wants more: more assurances things are breaking right, more signs he is loved, more money to ensure victory.
The money has been a bone of contention. Steinberg, seeing the financial overkill over Shepard, backed off from seeking more money from contributors that he might need four years from now in a gubernatorial race of his own.
The alleged tension was played up in the papers. One headline read: ''Steinberg's Independence Day.'' When Schaefer saw it, he confronted Steinberg, holding up the article and asking: ''What is this?''
''Did you read the article?'' Steinberg asked. ''Read it. Read what I said.''
He said he needed to work with the governor, but he couldn't completely submerge his own personality. The governor seemed mollified.
''See,'' Steinberg says now, ''we're different personalities. I told the governor one time, 'I've been married 29 years, so I know what it's like to be No. 2.' He said, 'No, we're partners.' I said, 'No. You're the boss.'
''We're different people. We're socially incompatible. But, man to man? There's no problem. And, on issues, we do not differ. So where's the problem?''