Are we about to witness civil war, Republican style? Are two ofthe Maryland Republican Party's best-known officials going to slug it out, toe-to-toe in an uncommon display of primary election candidate-bashing?
Yes, the anemic state GOP is showing signs of life. By this time next year, Republicans could be watching a messy, rip-roaring heavyweight fight rivaling the Democrats' usual cut-and-thrust melee.
And that's just for the primary. Wait till the November election campaign gears up.
In most other states, such frenzied activity is routine. Republicans go after Republicans in the primaries, then the Republicans tear into the Democrats in a true display of a contested two-party system.
Not in Maryland, where Democrats hold a 2-1 voter registration lead, and where only four Republicans have held the governorship this century -- and the last one left office 24 years ago. Only old-timers remember what it was like when a Republican ran the state.
The pendulum, though, finally seems to be swinging. All signs point to 1994 as an ideal year to be running on the GOP ticket:
* Republicans won a slew of local offices three years ago, making inroads in Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties.
* Republican registration has been on the rise in the suburbs for the past decade. It is now the majority party in Carroll County.
* Redistricting should give the GOP a shot at increasing its slim numbers in the General Assembly by a dozen or two next year, creating a true opposition party.
* Polls indicate Marylanders are fed up with incumbent Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer and don't hold the Democratic-controlled legislature in high regard, either. Nor is Bill Clinton popular.
* The "throw the rascals out" theme that won Ross Perot 14 percent of last year's presidential vote in Maryland is ripe for the taking. The combined Bush-Perot totals last year edged out Bill Clinton's vote in Maryland; four years earlier, Maryland went for George Bush.
* Four of the state's eight members of Congress are Republicans, indicating GOP sentiment among rural and suburban voters.
* The old Democratic stronghold in Baltimore City is fast losing population, and thus influence in statewide races. Meanwhile, fast-growing Montgomery County is one area where Republican sentiment is gaining ground.
For all these reasons, both Rep. Helen Bentley and Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall are leaning heavily toward running for governor. Both say their decision is 95 percent certain (though there's enough wiggle-room in their statements to give either one a convenient exit, if necessary).
They would bring star quality to the race. Both are established names in the political arena, and both have considerable achievements to brag about.
Mrs. Bentley is the "can do" candidate, the "do-it-now, politeness-be-damned" politico who has a well-deserved reputation as the defender of the Port of Baltimore. She has resurrected the GOP organization in Baltimore County and turned it into a powerful vote-getting apparatus.
Mr. Neall, meanwhile, has established a name for himself in Anne Arundel County where he has succeeded in putting GOP-conservative theories into practice: major budget belt-tightening, privatization, consolidation of services, running government more like a business. It has enhanced his already considerable reputation as an expert budget-cutter and manager.
Both can raise large sums of money, and both will have to do so for the primary: perhaps as much as $750,000 each. The general JTC election could cost another $2 million. The other two Republicans in the race, Del. Ellen Sauerbrey and William Shepard, could have trouble keeping pace with Mr. Neall and Mrs. Bentley. They don't strike fear in the hearts of Democrats.
But Mrs. Bentley, at this early stage, has the best name recognition and thus fares well against all Democrats in the polls.
Mr. Neall, though, is most feared by Democratic strategists. He is also the one favored by political insiders: he knows the state legislature inside-out, he knows how to revamp government and his former colleagues in the General Assembly know they can work effectively with him.
Still, many Republicans are dreading the prospects of GOP bloodletting in a cutthroat primary. This could drain the winner of crucial funds for the general election and leave the party divided.
Mrs. Bentley would give up a safe seat in Congress that Republicans probably won't be able to hold (top Democratic contender: Del. Gerry Brewster). Mr. Neall would leave the Anne Arundel executive's office open to Democratic assault (though Del. John Gary wants to try to keep the seat in Republican hands).
That could be the price, though, of making a serious bid for the political brass ring in Maryland. Football coaches like to tell players, "No pain, no glory." The same holds true in politics. If state Republicans want to blitz the Democrats next year, it may take some head-knocking in the primary. The reward, though, could make it all worthwhile.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.