The Maryland Republican Party mailed straw ballots to 368 party activists Friday asking who they think should hold the four highest statewide offices.
"I hope this will be the first of many [polls]," said party Chairwoman Joyce L. Terhes. Party officials thought a poll would "generate a lot of enthusiasm and interest," she said.
The 240 members of the Republican Party Central Committee, plus 128 state and local elected officials, are being asked to pick in 1-2-3 order their favorites from among the 17 "candidates" listed, or to write in a name they prefer.
Anne Arundel County Sen. John A. Cade is listed three times, for governor, comptroller and U.S. Senate. The fourth office on the ballot is attorney general.
The most interesting response may turn out to be write-ins under the heading of "other."
2nd District Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley's name, for instance, is not listed although she is regularly mentioned as a potential candidate for governor.
Nor is 8th District Congresswoman Connie Morella, though some believe she would be a strong candidate for the Senate seat held by Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes.
The results are to be announced at the state GOP's annual spring meeting in Ocean City on May 22.
Party insiders say one reason for the poll is to force Mrs. Bentley to decide whether to run. Until she decides, some other potential candidates are afraid to commit.
In a state controlled by Democrats, a Republican cannot afford to delay in setting up a campaign organization and starting serious fund-raising, Mrs. Terhes said.
The actual candidates for the four offices will be selected by Republican voters in a primary in September 1994. But party officials hope to head off a divisive primary fight by getting a clear and early indication of the candidates that party regulars favor.
"It's a way to see who the party activists think will be strong candidates," Mrs. Terhes said. "It's certainly not binding."
The poll offers these choices:
* For governor -- The list includes three officeholders and two former candidates, including retired foreign service officer William S. Shepard of Potomac. He won 40 percent of the vote against Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1990.
Also listed are Mr. Cade, 63, the Senate minority leader and one of the most influential members of the legislature; House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey of Baltimore County, who led GOP budget and tax fights against the Democrats the past three years; and Robert R. Neall, her predecessor as House minority leader and now Anne Arundel County executive.
Least known on the list is Edward L. Blanton Jr., a former assistant attorney general who got 35 percent of the vote in 1990 against Democratic Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
* For attorney general -- Richard Bennett, who just stepped down as U.S. attorney for Maryland to become a partner in the Baltimore law firm of Miles & Stockbridge, and Robert L. Flanagan, a 47-year-old lawyer who has represented Howard County in the House of Delegates since 1987.
* For comptroller -- Mr. Cade; Larry M. Epstein, a certified public accountant from Glyndon who was soundly beaten by eight-term Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein in 1990; and Michele Dyson, a Silver Spring communications company owner who suffered the same fate in last year's 4th District congressional race against Albert R. Wynn.
* For the U.S. Senate -- Mr. Cade; C. Ronald Franks, a dentist and first-term state delegate from Queen Anne's County; Martha S. Klima, a 54-year-old, pro-business delegate from Baltimore County since 1983; Richard La Vay, a 39-year-old Gaithersburg homebuilder who is finishing his first term as a Montgomery County delegate; Republican National Committeeman Richard Taylor of Montgomery County; former Cumberland Mayor Frank K. Nethken, who ran unsuccessfully for the 6th District congressional nomination in 1990; and Roy Mason, an Anne Arundel County lawyer who Mrs. Terhes said has been active in Republican campaigns.