Could this be the breakthrough year for Maryland's much-beleaguered and derided Republican Party?
It sure looks that way.
Helen Bentley is emerging not just as a prohibitive favorite in the GOP primary, but a likely winner in November. That could do wonders for the Republican running for attorney general, Richard D. Bennett. And thanks to redistricting and retirements, Republicans should pick up seats in the State House and county councils.
Even an upset in the U.S. Senate race might be possible, if the Bentley ticket develops coattails.
The linchpin of the GOP's strategy is Mrs. Bentley. For months, it looked like she couldn't get her act together. Over the fall and winter, her Hamlet-like hesitation drove GOP activists to despair.
But now her election apparatus is slowly getting into sync. The selection of Montgomery County state Sen. Howard A. Denis as running mate was a master stroke. It assures Mrs. Bentley of the large moderate Republican vote in populous Montgomery County for the primary. It makes her a lopsided favorite in the September 13 balloting.
As for the November general election, her choice of Mr. Denis could prove even more pivotal.
Here's the way it now shakes out: the leading Democratic contender is Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening. He has aligned himself with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, whose family devotion to liberal causes is well known. In addition, Mr. Glendening has made over $300 million worth of spending commitments to special interests so far. He is ripe for attacks as a tax-and-spend liberal.
Mr. Glendening's appeal is greatest in Baltimore and in Prince George's County. The moderate-to-conservative trend afoot in Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties gives Mrs. Bentley an excellent shot at winning there. She also should wipe out the opposition on the conservative Eastern Shore, Western Maryland and Southern Maryland.
That leaves Montgomery as the key battleground. Mrs. Bentley is helped by Mr. Denis' base of loyal voters there, plus that county's historic support for liberal Republicans like Mr. Denis -- Connie Morella, Newton Steers, Gilbert Gude, Mac Mathias. At the least, Mrs. Bentley might be able to run close to Mr. Glendening there.
Even in Glendening strongholds, Mrs. Bentley could make inroads. Conservative pockets of northeast, north and northwest Baltimore, plus blue-collar port districts, are natural Bentley precincts. In Prince George's, the southern end is firmly conservative, and a number of P.G. Democrats dislike Mr. Glendening.
A further advantage is that traditionally Democratic businessmen are sending signals that they will not support a Kennedy-linked ticket that is ardently pro-government spending. Some conservative Democratic politicos also are talking about crossing over.
There are, of course, Bentley negatives that could sink her. Mrs. Bentley's defense of Serbian aggression; her questionable role in Watergate campaign fund-raising activities; her votes in Congress against gun control and abortion; her xenophobic Japan-bashing -- all could be resurrected.
She could stir new controversies with her tendency to speak too bluntly on the campaign trail. She also doesn't have a firm grasp of state policy issues. No wonder her handlers have had her avoid most of the candidate forums so far.
And Mr. Glendening is not going to be a push-over. He knows the issues, is smart, extremely well organized and starts with a huge advantage in the Democrats' 2-1 voting majority.
Still, Republicans are bubbling over with enthusiasm. They have developed a solid corps of candidates for local offices. Redistricting works to their advantage in the suburbs. The state's voting trend is tilting toward moderate-conservative.
And they have Helen Bentley.
She is their Moses, leading the state GOP toward the Promised Land. That is no understatement.
When the Republican Party in Baltimore County was feeble, she spent six years building an organization capable of defeating Rep. Clarence D. Long. Then she went about constructing a viable Republican apparatus countywide. She carried Roger Hayden on her back in his surprising landslide victory.
Mrs. Bentley came to the state GOP's rescue when the conservative religious right was about to seize control of the party. Though a conservative herself, she defended the moderate-liberal wing and ousted the right-wing zealots.
Now she wants to complete her task: putting a Republican in the Governor's Mansion. It means hundreds of jobs for Republicans, including some who will later run for office. It means a dramatic shift in the way state government is run. It means a respectability that the GOP hasn't really enjoyed in this state since the days of Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin in the 1950s.
A Bentley victory could achieve all that. No wonder Republicans are getting excited. This is as close as many of them have gotten to the Promised Land in their lifetime.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.