As party stalwarts gathered here yesterday to look to the future, it was clear many of them are worried -- and not without reason.
They still are smarting from their showing in last year's election, in which Gov. Parris N. Glendening won by just 5,993 votes out of 1.4 million cast, several Democratic legislators lost their seats to Republicans and the GOP took control of Capitol Hill.
The state's Democrats fared pretty well compared with other states in holding back the Republican tide, but the gains nationally made by the GOP have left the Maryland party reassessing its mission and message.
"It was a wake-up call, all right," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, the former House of Delegates majority leader from Hagerstown who was returned to Annapolis last November by fewer than 100 votes.
"But I'd rather have a wake-up call than be put to sleep," he said.
Mr. Poole struck a chord with many of the more than 200 Democrats from across the state who met at Hood College for a daylong session on "Crafting a Winning Message for the '90s."
Echoing the frustrations of many voters, he complained of a Democratic tendency for overregulation, a belief that government will take care of all problems.
"Except for the issue of abortion, we've become the party of telling people what they can't do instead of what they can do," Mr. Poole said.
"I know I don't sound like a lot of national Democrats, but I'll tell you, I sound like a lot of Maryland Democrats I meet every day."
In speeches and conversations here yesterday, some echoed Mr. Poole's concerns. Others sounded more traditional, Democratic themes.
Mr. Glendening did a little of both. In a luncheon address, he portrayed himself as a pro-business chief executive who knows how to cut a budget and taxes.
But he also said he was "alarmed, even angry" at cuts being made by the Republicans in Washington. And he accused the GOP of practicing the "politics of meanspiritedness and divisiveness."
"We're the party of inclusion, caring, compassion and hope," Mr. Glendening said.
The governor also tried to assure party critics that the Democrats do have a message and that it would become clearer than ever, when voters compare it with the policies of U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Mr. Glendening, and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in her address to the crowd, lashed out at the Republicans in Washington and warned of the fiscal consequences of their cuts to the state.
Many of the speakers and attendees fell into cheerleading and Republican-bashing, while others offered tangible proof of the change in voters' attitude toward Democrats.
Among them was Thomas H. Hattery, a former delegate from Frederick who lost to Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett in a race for the 6th District congressional seat in 1992 and was defeated again last year in a bid to return to the General Assembly.
"People don't want to hear the details, the issues or the specific qualities of a candidate. They just want to vote Republican," Mr. Hattery said.
He credited the Republicans for a strategy of getting their message out -- in sound bites, on talk radio -- and defining the Democrats, who were unable to muster a convincing defense.
"The Democrats have a right to be worried," he said. "We've been fat and happy, and we've not been aggressive in making sure both sides have been represented in addressing the issues."
Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, who is Mr. Glendening's chief political strategist, agreed in concept, though took issue with the "fat and happy" characterization.
"Democrats basically have enjoyed a period of electoral success that has spanned more than 20 years," Mr. Willis said. "People get used to doing politics a certain way, but when the environment changes, as it has, they don't always see it."
Mr. Willis conceded that Democrats have something to worry about, but added, "This isn't doom-and-gloom worry.
"This is, 'We better do something or we'll find ourselves outworked, out-maneuvered and out flanked,' " he said.