CUMBERLAND -- Maryland Republican leaders at their fall convention this weekend put Rep. Helen Delich Bentley on notice that they want to know by next month what her political plans are for 1994.
Mrs. Bentley, one of the party's most popular and formidable figures, responded by promising a decision in the "very near future."
Party leaders for months have been privately urging the 2nd District congresswoman to say what she plans to do, but for the first time this weekend the message was delivered in a public forum -- an indication that patience is wearing thin.
Richard P. Taylor, the Republican national committeeman, and Christopher R. West, chairman of the party's 1994 strategy committee, said that by Nov. 8, a year to the day from next year's general election, all potential candidates for statewide office should make their intentions clear.
"We ought to know who our statewide candidates are by then," Mr. Taylor told the gathering of about 150 party leaders %o yesterday morning. "I think it's essential that by about Nov. 8 we have our team in place, and I think that's going to happen. I certainly encourage it to happen."
On Friday evening, Mr. West, a Baltimore attorney, initiated discussion of the Nov. 8 date. "The time has come for Republicans to make their decisions and make their intentions known," he told the party's executive committee.
Mr. Taylor later said he did not consider Nov. 8 a hard deadline, but he would not like to see decisions put off much beyond then.
Neither Mr. Taylor nor Mr. West mentioned Mrs. Bentley by name in their public remarks, but there seemed little question at whom they were directed.
Mrs. Bentley, who was seated at the head table with Mr. Taylor when he spoke, sounded almost apologetic as she responded at a party luncheon about an hour later.
"Because of the kind of person I am, I try to look at every angle before I make a decision on a matter such as this, and once that decision is reached I will look forward without looking back," she said.
TC "I can appreciate that many of you have encouraged me to make this decision as soon as possible. I thank you for your patience so far and pledge to you that I will make my decision in the very near future."
She promised a vigorous campaign should she run for governor. "If I enter this race, I will come out swinging and prove to the voters of the state how one-party rule has worked to their detriment."
She later told a reporter that Nov. 8, the date proposed by Mr. Taylor and Mr. West, was "a good time frame."
Without detailing her calculations, she noted that the gubernatorial field of both parties had been narrowed in recent weeks.
In September, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said they would not run, leaving the Democrats with three announced candidates: Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening and state Sen. Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County.
On Friday, Robert R. Neall, the Anne Arundel County executive who many in the Republican Party had hoped would run for governor, announced he was retiring from politics.
In her brief luncheon remarks, Mrs. Bentley made no mention of running for the Senate, although she has previously said she was considering that race as well. She declined to clarify the omission other than to say, "I chose my words carefully."
Party leaders say that they are not afraid of a primary battle so long as it does not become so bruising that it torpedoes GOP chances in the general election.
But they maintain that Mrs. Bentley's indecision has the party in a holding pattern by freezing contributors and potential volunteers who want to know her plans before committing to other candidates.
The two candidates already in the race -- William S. Shepard, the 1990 gubernatorial nominee, and Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the House minority leader -- both insisted that they would not defer to Mrs. Bentley if she decides to join the field.
Despite the squall swirling around Mrs. Bentley, party leaders continued to proclaim 1994 their year to capture the State House along with offices at every level of government.