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A Startling, Exhilarating Relevance


Havre de Grace. -- At the various Fourth of July parades up this way, Republican politicians, once only a curiosity, were much in evidence. And they ere exuding a startling and palpable self-confidence.

As national Republicans square off, local party members, sometimes a little nervously, are beginning to take sides too. The old Eleventh Commandment from the Sixties, which proscribed criticism of one Republican by another, has long since been abandoned, and the pre-primary mudballs are flying.

But as the Dolesters battle the Gramm crackers, and the social conservatives ponder their uneasy alliance with the free marketeers, they're all happily discovering something Democrats have known for years. In a healthy political party, tension builds strength.

In Maryland Republican circles right now, there's something of the same division that was so apparent in the watershed 1994 gubernatorial primary. A lot of the old guard Republicans who supported Helen Bentley now favor Bob Dole for president.

But many of the newly energized conservatives who carried the primary for Ellen Sauerbrey are, like Mrs. Sauerbrey herself, for Phil Gramm. Mrs. Sauerbrey, an economic conservative above all, lost confidence in Senator Dole when his support for the '92 tax package helped do in George Bush. She's heading the Gramm campaign in Maryland with all the passion she poured into her own effort last year.

Her views are echoed by a lot of those philosophical Republicans still registered as Democrats who almost got her elected governor last November. Some of those old Reagandems will register as Republicans for the first time well before next year's elections.

That alone doesn't mean that Senator Gramm will necessarily defeat Senator Dole in Maryland, or elsewhere. It's much too early to make a judgment like that. For one thing, Senator Gramm's candidacy may self-destruct. For another, Senator Dole has support among Reagandems too.

Although current polls give Senator Dole the lead by a substantial margin, they don't yet mean much. Mrs. Sauerbrey points out that her own support showed at less than 10 percent in the polls only a few months before she won the primary, and she predicts that Senator Gramm will move up after Labor Day when voters begin to focus on the campaign.

But whatever the numbers now show, the division between the two leading Republican candidates means that the Maryland primary will be interesting and deadly serious. Older Maryland Republicans, who used to feel a twinge of irrelevancy every time they voted in a primary, should find next year's elections very different indeed.

As all politics is fundamentally local, the Gramm-Dole maneuvers are in a sense a warm-up not just for the presidential election, but for the real election in 1998 when contests for state and local offices will again be on the ballot.

In Maryland, the idea that Republicans might one day capture one house of the General Assembly has always seemed preposterous. But that's not so any more. And if their party should elect a president next year and hold or expand its congressional majority, Maryland Republicans could charge into 1998 elections with a lot of momentum.

They need 31 more seats to control the House of Delegates, and that's probably out of the question until after the next legislative reapportionment. But they only need nine to control the state Senate, and while that's a tall order, Democrats no longer find it laughable.

Most of the 15 senate seats the Republicans now hold look solid. And some conservative Democrats such as Harford County's William Amoss and Cecil's Walter Baker may retire at the end of this term. If they do, their seats are likely to go to Republicans.

If party control of the Senate were to change, though, it would probably require more than the election of new Republicans. Some party-switching by Democrats would be needed as well.

While that seems unlikely now, it's the sort of thing that can happen with amazing speed when political control is teetering in the balance.

Who might switch? They'd probably deny that such a shocking thought ever entered their heads, but it wouldn't surprise many of their constituents if Senators John Astle of Anne Arundel County or Tom Bromwell of Baltimore County were to do so.

The same might be said of Roy Dyson of fast-Republicanizing St. Mary's County. A former congressman, Mr. Dyson seems far happier, more effective, and freer to be himself in Annapolis than he ever was in Washington. He likes the legislature. If changing his affiliation came to seem the best way to keep his seat, his partisan loyalties would in all probability prove flexible.

And then there's Mike Miller of Prince George's, the Senate president. Senator Miller's not always in tune with the big-government policies espoused by his party's leadership, and if by becoming a Republican he could remain the president of a GOP-controlled Senate, would he switch? My guess is he'd do it in a heartbeat.

As Senator Gramm himself has demonstrated, a partisan switch in time can save a career. That's a message that hasn't been lost on Maryland Democrats.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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