TOWN AND COUNTRY, Mo. -- Maryland's Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer defected proudly to the banner of Republican President George Bush only days before Tuesday's election as Mr. Schaefer's allies condemned his betrayal in the harshest terms.
Dropping what Maryland Republicans and Democrats alike regarded as a pretext of neutrality in the race for president, Mr. Schaefer yesterday flew halfway across the country to campaign for Mr. Bush in a suburb west of St. Louis.
"It was an easy decision for me to come out here and endorse himbecause I know I'm right. I had to consider what is truly best for the U.S.," Mr. Schaefer said, nearly yelling to a Republican crowd estimated at more than 5,000.
Maryland Democrats who have campaigned with Mr. Schaefer for decades, sharing the same podiums, the same fund-raisers and the same campaign organizations, decried his decision to ++ abandon them and their party's nominee, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
"It's regrettable and it's wrong," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. "It's hard to believe that anyone who has been a mayor and a governor during the Reagan-Bush years could support four more years of their failed economic policies."
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said, "I think it's sad for Governor Schaefer that his judgment is so clouded he doesn't perceive it's the Bush economic policy that has placed his state and its people in such difficult circumstances."
At about the time Mr. Schaefer was returning to Maryland, the Clinton forces staged a protest in front of his house on Edgewood Street in Baltimore. A sign held by one of the 50 demonstrators said: "Who asked you anyway?"
"It's like being a traitor," said demonstrator Annette Bryson, a teacher. "I'm just disgusted that a Democrat could possibly support Bush. Bush is the farthest thing possible from what Democrats believe."
The campaign issued a one-sentence press release, also in the form of a question:
"Why is he doing it in Missouri?"
The answer, the campaign said, is that the endorsement only has value among voters who don't know Mr. Schaefer. In Maryland, officials of both parties have steered away from a man whose once-Olympian support has all but collapsed.
The descent was accelerated by such things as his reference to the Eastern Shore as a "s-- house," by a spate of sharply worded letters to citizens who criticized him and by economic woes that have forced him to cut programs and raise taxes.
Yesterday, though, Mr. Schaefer's unorthodox odyssey put him once again before an approving throng of voters, placard-waving Missourians who hardly knew him.
"What he is doing," said Missouri Republican Gov. John Ashcroft, as he introduced Mr. Schaefer yesterday, "is neither politically correct nor party-line correct."
Just why Mr. Schaefer was walking away from his political friends was grist for wide speculation in Maryland yesterday. Theories ranged from personal unhappiness with Mr. Clinton to a suggestion that he is cannily rolling the political dice, protecting Maryland's interests in Washington no matter who wins next week:
With Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke backing Mr. Clinton, Mr. Schaefer's support of Mr. Bush puts a Maryland Democrat behind each of the main contenders. If the Republican wins, the governor's endorsement at this moment would be cherished in a second Bush administration.
Others say Mr. Schaefer's move was typically impetuous, instinctive, and heartfelt: He likes Mr. Bush and believes he would be the best president.
Mr. Schaefer had all but endorsed Mr. Bush on several occasions since last winter's primary, calling him a friend and a "decent" man. He has visited Mr. Bush at the presidential retreat, Camp David in Western Maryland, and met with him on several visits to the state this year. The Bush administration has provided several desperately needed infusions of cash on some of these trips.
Yesterday, the governor specifically thanked Mr. Bush for helping Maryland obtain a waiver that permits the state to try a welfare reform program and for helping the state collect a disputed $75 million in Medicaid payments.
Whatever the motivation, Democratic Party officials were outraged and extraordinarily outspoken -- another indication of Mr. Schaefer's diminished political standing.
Vera Hall, a Baltimore City Council member and chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said the governor's action left her "bitterly disappointed that he would choose at this moment to abandon the principles for which he once fought in his own public life."
Baltimore City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said she has found it difficult to explain what she called "a breach of loyalty from someone who has made loyalty such a virtue."
Richard C. "Mike" Lewin of Baltimore, a longtime Democratic fund-raiser and contributor who recently gave $500 at a party fund-raising event organized by Mr. Schaefer, said the governor was "walking away from the people who made him."
John T. Willis of Baltimore, a former party official, was much more caustic in his analysis: "They share low standing in the polls, paranoid reaction to the press and generational disconnection with the American electorate."
At a news conference here after his campaign speech, Mr. Schaefer explained the evolution of his thinking this way:
"I guess I changed my mind because I feel -- this will sound hokey -- that this is so serious I just couldn't stand by the side and do nothing. The easy thing for me to do as governor was just to sit by the side and do nothing. I don't think I could have done that in good conscience.
"This isn't nickel-and-dime stuff. This is big."
Mr. Schaefer told reporters in Missouri he still considers himself a Democrat.
"I am a Democrat. I am still a Democrat. I will remain a Democrat. I support [Maryland's] Democratic congressional delegation. But I support Mr. Bush because I trust him."
The governor's office said it received a number of calls and faxes yesterday in response to his announcement. The majority were critical, according to Page Boinest, Mr. Schaefer's acting press secretary.