A resurgent Newt Gingrich and a series of new primary election rules in place for the first time in 2012 are giving local Republicans hope that traditionally blue Maryland may play a role in choosing the GOP presidential nominee.
Maryland's April 3 primary falls a distant three months after the Iowa caucuses and nearly a month after the 11-state electoral behemoth known as Super Tuesday, but the roller-coaster race for the Republican presidential nomination has inspired talk of a prolonged battle that could carry on well into the spring.
Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have all put campaign operations on the ground for the state's election and are working to lock up potential donors and endorsements.
"It's just the dynamic of the campaign to this point," said former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who in October was named chairman of Romney's campaign in Maryland. "It's going to be a more drawn-out primary season."
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who lost his nomination bid to John McCain in 2008, said recently that the 2012 primary could drag on until virtually every state has voted — a sharp contrast with the traditional scenario in which early states like New Hampshire and Florida decide the outcome.
If that happens, it would be partly by design.
The National Republican Committee approved new rules for next year's election that are intended to loosen the grip early states have long held on the nomination process. States with primaries in March will now be required to have some proportionality in the way they allocate delegates. That means primary elections immediately preceding Maryland's will no longer convey all of a state's delegates to the winner.
Similar rules for Democrats helped extend the 2008 primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The race was not decided until June.
"An early April primary is one that could have significance in the outcome of the presidential race," predicted Rep. Andy Harris, the Baltimore County Republican leading Gingrich's campaign in Maryland.
Gingrich's rise is driving most of the speculation over an elongated primary fight. The former House speaker's campaign appeared dead over the summer, but it rebounded and then began to soar after Herman Cain dropped out this month amid allegations of sexual harassment and infidelity.
A Gallup poll Wednesday showed Gingrich 9 percentage points ahead of Romney among GOP voters nationally. Gingrich's margin had fallen from 15 points earlier in the month.
Most predict that a protracted primary fight would help Romney, who is more prepared for a long battle in terms of organization and money. That is particularly true in states like Maryland, which many candidates have been forced to overlook as they compete in the more high-profile contests.
Romney has secured endorsements from more than two dozen state lawmakers, party officials and longtime GOP operatives. He has drawn nearly $560,000 in contributions from the state, four times more than the next-highest candidate on the list, Perry. Gingrich has raised only about $25,000, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Open Secrets.
"The longer the competition goes on, the better off he's going to be," said Audrey Scott, a former state GOP chairwoman who is now working for Romney. "He has the most staying power right now."
But Maryland surrogates for other candidates note that early victories, particularly in states like Florida, could quickly change the landscape of the race in the later states.
"I'd have the opposite view," Harris said. "The more time you have, the more Mr. Gingrich will catch up in organization."
And at least some high-profile Maryland Republicans have been hesitant to fall into line behind Romney. Western Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who faces his own difficult re-election next year, has not said whom he will back for president but said it would "probably" be Ron Paul or Gingrich.
Bartlett considers Paul a close friend and noted that he serves as an informal policy adviser to the Gingrich campaign on the issue of electromagnetic pulse attacks — a theoretical nuclear explosion in the atmosphere that would knock out electrical grids and communications.
"I don't know how long this thing will run but clearly the electorate has been looking for the non-Romney candidate," Bartlett said.
For Maryland to be in play, Gingrich and Romney would have to come to a draw in several early battles. If Romney won in New Hampshire and Florida, for instance, and Gingrich captured Iowa and South Carolina, that would likely push the race into February, which has a comparatively light seven contests.
"The real question is do they make it to March or do we have a clear winner by the end of February," said Thomas F. Schaller, a nationally recognized expert on presidential politics who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is a contributor to the op-ed page of The Baltimore Sun. "There's a lot that has to happen."
Richard E. Hug, a longtime Ehrlich fundraiser now working for Perry, agreed that it's "too early to say" whether Maryland will play a role in the primary. Like those working for the other presidential candidates, Hug said the focus now is on fundraising and also helping out in states with early primaries.
Ehrlich, for instance, said he anticipates traveling to some of those early states on behalf of Romney, though he said that schedule is not set.
Louis M. Pope, a Republican National Committee member who is a co-chair of Romney's campaign, said he supports the new GOP primary rules because they make states like Maryland more relevant in the process.
Pope agreed that most of the GOP campaign operations in Maryland are focused elsewhere, but said that would quickly change as the primary calendar unfolds. The Romney campaign has launched a Maryland-based Facebook page, is expected to announce a new round of endorsements next week and is preparing to organize what Pope said are hundreds of volunteers in the state.
"We will be marshaling our forces," he said. "Time will tell whether or not we need all that."