ALL a Republican candidate for governor has to do to win the party's primary election is to concentrate on four counties. It's that simple.
But a Democrat has to squander time, money and energy jack-rabbiting across the state paying tribute to 23 counties and Baltimore City.
The difference has as much to do with voter attitudes as with the numbers. The Democrats are the majority party, all right, with a tad more than 1.6 million registrants. The Republicans, on the other hand, have just under half as many -- 709,000 registered voters.
But the advantage a Republican candidate has is that about half the party's total vote count is squeezed into four suburban counties -- Montgomery (135,000), Baltimore County (106,000), Anne Arundel (79,000) and Howard (41,000).
Most political warlocks consider Montgomery County the key to the primary election in both parties as well as the principal battleground in the general election.
The other critical factor in the Republican equation is the party's historically low voter turnout -- 26 percent in the 1990 primary and 28 percent in 1986. But those Republicans who do vote are a small and determined conservative group with control of the party's nominating process. In a sense, 26 percent of the GOP's members control 100 percent of the party's vote.
Another advantage Republican statewide candidates have over Democrats is that because they are so outnumbered in the General Assembly, they don't have to deal with so many local warlords with their hands out, palms up.
Primary and general campaigns are different elections that require different strategies. Primary campaigns are built around organization, while general campaigns are fought over issues and personalities. The common denominator is money.
Although the primary election's 11 months away, smart Republicans, for whatever statewide office, should begin organizing right now in the four counties with the highest concentrations of party members. Republicans in those counties will determine the outcome of the party's primary. Remember, three of those -- Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel -- elected Republican executives in 1990, and the odds are short that at least two of them will remain in Republicans hands.
the two announced Republican candidates, one is from Baltimore County, the other from Montgomery. Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, leader of the upstart band of 25 Republicans in the House of Delegates, has a solid base in her home Baltimore County district, the 10th.
Ms. Sauerbrey, however, has been working countywide with the rackety taxpayers' groups, and many of their members have enlisted in her campaign. Moreover, as House minority leader, Ms. Sauerbrey has won regard across the state for the manner in which she's made monkeys of the Democrats in her battle over the budget.
William Shepard is a retired diplomat who parks his striped pants and attache case in Montgomery County. Mr. Shepard's calling card is the 1990 election. He won the Republican primary, would you believe, with his wife as his running mate. And the Shepards went on to win 13 counties and 40 percent of the vote against the larger-than-life Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Since then, Mr. Shepard's been a fixture at General Assembly sessions and legislative committee meetings, preparing himself for a return engagement.
To Ms. Sauerbrey's advantage, though, is that the Republican Party has become increasingly conservative in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. In those counties, they'll match her anti-budget screeds paragraph for paragraph.
But in Howard and especially in Montgomery, Republicans have discovered that the best way to beat Democrats is to act like them. Montgomery, for example, has elected only one Democrat to Congress since 1960.
And it's a running joke in Montgomery that voters register Republican so they can vote in the party primary, then turn around and vote Democrat in the general.
Betting on elections is illegal in Maryland, but the wagering in this corner is that Rep. Helen Delich Bentley will stay put in the comfort zone of her seat in Congress.
Of course, putting together a primary election campaign is an investment in the general as well. And no candidate of sound mind and fat wallet would be foolhardy enough to totally ignore the remaining 20 subdivisions.
So while the Democrats are scrambling across the state like the cartoon character Roadrunner, all the Republicans have to do is put their campaigns together building block by building block in four counties. Sometimes it pays to be the minority party.
Frank A. DeFilippo writes here on Maryland politics.