With their president behind in the polls, their national leaders bickering over philosophy and their favorite campaign themes purloined by Democrats, Maryland Republicans insist that stronger leadership and a clearer message can bring them victory this November.
Interviews with many of the 42 Marylanders heading for the Republican National Convention in Houston found a layer of surface optimism -- with strong undercurrents of impatience and even bewilderment at the course of events so far.
No Maryland delegate thought President Bush had communicated adequately a concern for Americans caught in the down draft of recession. No one thought he had clearly shown how the U.S. Congress blocks his best ideas and programs.
Most troubling of all, they said, was the confused, lethargic and inept early presidential campaign. Several even admired the early efforts of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
"Right now," said Del. John Gary, R-Anne Arundel, "It's Clinton's election to lose. It's a case of George Bush having to prove to people that he's the better choice. And we have to work our buns off."
Mr. Gary and others in the Maryland GOP delegation say they are anxious to help their president show voters where the nation's best interests lie.
And in the end, they say, Americans will be more comfortable with the president they have now.
"I just don't think he has any true opposition," says Brenda Butscher, a Garrett County commissioner and chair of the county's Republican Central Committee.
"Bill Clinton peaked after the Democratic convention. I think now he'll start falling by the wayside. He doesn't know much about foreign policy. He has no experience in Washington. By November he'll be just another Dukakis."
But so far it is Mr. Bush who most resembles former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate. Uncertainty and lack of action that characterized the Democratic candidate's campaign four years ago seem to have overtaken Mr. Bush.
For many in the 42-member Maryland contingent, the political world seemed slightly off its axis:
* Conservatives and even some moderate voters were telling their delegates it might be better for their party to lose than to endure four more years under a president who abandoned them by breaking his promise not to raise taxes.
* Slash and burn politics, which seemed certain to destroy Mr. Clinton's chances early, didn't seem to be working. What would the Republican strategists fall back on? Could they run a positive campaign?
* Mr. Bush's second term was so imperiled that Secretary of State James A. Baker III was called back to rescue the campaign.
"It's a reflection of how far back he is," said Dr. Mark Frazer, a
former Calvert County Commissioner making no effort to deny the reality he sees. "I don't think he wanted second best for this job."
"The turnaround is just unbelievable," said Mr. Gary, who seemed to be still in shock over the president's loss of popularity.
An unbelieveable turnaround, perhaps, but Mr. Gary and his colleagues had definite ideas about why Mr. Bush was faring so poorly.
"Workers in this country are worried about their jobs, about paying their mortgages and meeting the car payment," he said. "They're saying, 'What the hell is happening to me? What is the president doing to protect me?' People are so frustrated that he hasn't been sensitive to them that they're willing to believe anything is better -- even Clinton."
"It's axiomatic," said Dr. Frazer, "that people vote their pocketbooks. The president hasn't been able to communicate any conviction or a plan for how he would turn the economy around."
No one in Maryland's contingent would have any part of the call for Mr. Bush to withdraw. And there was even less sentiment for dropping Vice President Dan Quayle. "Dan Quayle is not George Bush's problem. George Bush is George Bush's problem," Dr. Frazer said. "One of the president's problems is a lack of conviction on a number of issues. Dumping Quayle would just add fuel to that fire," he said.
The question of presidential credibility raised by Mr. Bush's broken promise not to raise taxes did not arise without prompting, as if the subject was too painful. When it did arise, though, the delegates were ready with positive interpretations.
"He broke his personal word for the good of the country," said Victor Clark Jr., a sales consultant and member of the Baltimore Republican Central Committee. "He thought he was dealing with reputable people. He wanted to reduce the deficit -- and they spent the money for new programs," Mr. Clark said.
"I wish he hadn't signed that [tax increase] bill," said Carol Arscott, chair of the Republican Central Committee in Howard County. "He's the first to admit he made a mistake." Part of the president's political recovery effort, she said, may be an apology.
Virtually everyone interviewed for this article said that the president must find a way to convince Americans that Congress, crippled by partisan concerns that undermine the country, is more to blame than the president for America's problems.
And Mr. Baker must enliven and invigorate the campaign.
In Western Maryland, the Garrett County Fair has come and gone without a strong presidential campaign presence, according to Ms. Butscher. "We haven't campaigned hard enough. We can't get any campaign material. This is about our last shot before November. We're missing a lot of good exposure," she said as she prepared to leave for Houston.
"The Democrats are out-campaigning us now. Their after-convention strategy has been brilliant . . . out there in a bus. It's a really great symbol of middle America," said Carol Hirschburg, a member of the Baltimore Republican Central Committee.
Alluding wryly to the unremitting struggle between her party's conservatives and its more moderate center, Ms. Hirschburg said, "We're all really excited about going down to Houston and bonding."
Most of the Maryland delegates, all of whom are pledged to Mr. Bush, said they were confident their man could still win even in Maryland notwithstanding the stronger opposition from Mr. Clinton and the Democrats.
"It's like their last stand," Dr. Frazer said. "They have failed with the far left candidates. So they are wrapping Clinton and [vice-presidential candidate Al] Gore with more moderate cloth, hoping to sell them to middle America. They're trying to muscle in on Republican territory." The voters won't be misled, he said.
But no one discounted the magnitude of the problem in this state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 2-to-1.
"I always thought Clinton would be very tough," says David Blumberg, chairman of the Baltimore Republican Central Committee. "We need to run a very aggressive but positive campaign. I don't think we've done real well so far."
John Gary, Millersville
Ken Schisler, Easton
Alice Wright, Chestertown
Barbara Chinn, Towson
David Craig, Havre de Grace
Lois Nagle, Bel Air
Joan Athen, Columbia
David Blumberg, Baltimore
Douglas B. Riley, Towson
Leroy Bell, Ft. Washington
Rosemary Jaskiewicz, Upper Marlboro
Clinton West, Silver Spring
Barbara Anderson, Upper Marlboro
Phillip Bissett, Edgewater
Carl "Buddy" Loffler, Lexington Park
Brenda Butscher, Oakland
Robert Kittleman, West Friendship
Donald Munson, Hagerstown
Kathleen Buffington, Baltimore
Victor Clark, Jr., Baltimore
Beverly Goldstein, Baltimore
Howard Denis, Chevy Chase
Betty Ann Krahnke, Chevy Chase
Barbara Taylor, Germantown
William Shepard, Potomac
Joyce Lyons Terhes, Dunkirk
Richard Taylor, Bethesda
Teresa di Stefano, Bowie
John Leopold, Pasadena
Susan Saum-Wicklein, Hagerstown
George L. Jenkins, Bethesda
Constance Morella, Bethesda
Helen Delich Bentley, Towson
C.C. Moss, Baltimore
Robert Neall, Annapolis
Audrey Scott, Bowie
Carol Arscott, Ellicott City
Norman Bunting, Bishopville
Mark Frazer, Huntingtown
Ruthanne Gary, Millersville
Janet Greenip, Crofton
Ellen Sauerbrey, Baldwin