HOUSTON -- Maryland Republicans have pushed their party's nominee to victory in the past two presidential elections, but they fear a third triumph could be beyond their reach.
Party members concede Maryland does not appear to be a prime territory for George Bush in 1992.
The economic woes that have damaged the president's candidacy elsewhere afflict Marylanders as well. And, although the GOP has made important gains in voter registration, it still trails the Democrats in Maryland by a margin of 2-1.
The task of electing Mr. Bush a second time is made the more difficult by abortion, an issue that party leaders say could be particularly harmful in Maryland, a state whose legislature passed a relatively liberal abortion law in 1991. That law will be tested on election day in a referendum which could bring out many anti-Bush, pro-abortion rights voters -- and might siphon off important pro-Bush political volunteers as well.
As a result of the rocky political terrain this fall, party leaders are already looking past 1992 to 1994 -- the year when they just may lose their reputation as one of the weakest of the 50 state Republican parties.
"We have to try to keep our momentum," says Joyce L. Terhes, chairwoman of the state party.
"We're psyched for '94," says Carol Hirschburg, a Republican Central Committee member from Baltimore. "We are looking at the end of an eight-year reign for William Donald Schaefer, a governor whose popularity rating is very low. We'll have a statewide ticket that is terrific from top to bottom."
GOP momentum in Maryland has come from its recent presidential election successes, when the party found ways to put a heavily Democratic state in the Republican column. Success was gained in these races by striking alliances with Democratic organizations, particularly in the Democratic stronghold of Baltimore, whose leaders liked the Republican nominee better than their own.
In 1990, capitalizing on its own strong voter-registration work and riding the wave of anti-incumbent feeling, Maryland Republicans won victories at every level.
Still, the image of a loser endures. And it is not without justification.
Republicans have not elected a Republican governor in Maryland since Spiro T. Agnew in 1966 -- 26 years ago. Mr. Agnew resigned in disgrace as vice president, and his Maryland success has been of little comfort. Since then, the party has sometimes seemed silly as it tried to recruit sports stars or national GOP figures to run for governor or the U.S. Senate.
In some elections, the party has been unable to field full slates of candidates, leaving its leaders to fret about failing to win a percentage of votes sufficient to keep the official designation as a party under Maryland law.
Until last year, the GOP had been of little consequence in the making of policy in the General Assembly. Democrats have had a lock on local government.
In the mid-1980s, the religious right succeeded in taking control -- just as the party was making Reagan-era voter registration gains. When the more moderate wing regained control in 1989, the party was demoralized and broke.
Ms. Terhes recalls a meeting of state party chairmen when she realized how far her party had fallen. Colorado's Bruce Benson was describing his Team 100 fund-raising approach -- and she thought briefly that Maryland's recovery might not be so difficult.
"We can get 100 people to raise $1,000," she thought.
Mr. Benson went on to say that 100 Coloradans would be raising not $1,000, but $100,000 each.
As painful as all of that may have been, within two years Ms. Terhes could say her party had raised $400,000 in 1990 -- and made dramatic electoral gains.
Republicans won county executive races in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.
"Those victories are important for the future because we have had an opportunity to show what we can do," said Carol A. Arscott, chairwoman of the Howard County Republican Central Committee. She believes a distinct difference in governing philosophies -- particularly in regard to taxation -- will enhance her party's chances further.
In the General Assembly, 1990 brought nine new delegates and two more senators. Many local government seats were won -- including four County Council seats in Worcester County, where all five commissioners are now Republicans.
With all of this groundwork behind them, the party leaders exult about 1994. They are nevertheless concerned that 1992 could do damage to their prospects.
They could become victims of their success, of rising expectations.
Some have predicted the GOP could win two new congressional seats this year. The 5th and 6th districts are within the party's grasp, says Dr. Mark Frazer, a convention delegate and former Calvert County commissioner. Others doubt whether the races are that close.
If Mr. Bush is defeated in Maryland, setback could become the label of 1992 -- particularly if the Democrats are able to increase their number of seats in the Congress, which is at least a possibility.
But what gives the GOP faithful the most confidence for the future is the new crop of locally grown statewide candidates. One set of potential candidates has been dubbed the "dream team."
Robert R. Neall, the Anne Arundel County executive, is regarded as the strongest Republican candidate for governor. Ms. Terhes might run for lieutenant governor. Richard Bennett, now the U.S. attorney, could run for attorney general. The comptroller race would have competitors from the Republican side.
But how many of these dream candidates will run in reality? To move up, some of the dream team members would have to risk their current posts. They might be unwilling despite the view that 1994 is the year.
The party's titular head, U.S.Rep. Helen Delich Bentley of Baltimore County, has said she might run for governor -- a decision regarded as unlikely and as partly generated by her desire to remain in control of the party.
If she did run, her party might relapse into the practice of killing off new talent -- sometimes referred to by GOP detractors as "eating your young."
Any number of other contenders could climb into the picture, threatening havoc. The dream team could turn into a nightmare team, some party members say.
Ms. Terhes is thinking about all these possibilities, she says, even as the 1992 convention begins today.
"I'm going to take everybody into a room. I'm going to lock the door, and we're not coming out until we have a consensus," she says. Nothing will get in the way of 1994, she says.
"It's our year," Ms. Terhes says.