CENTREVILLE -- In most years, it probably would have taken a presidential candidate to draw a record crowd to the annual GOP fund-raiser that Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest has been staging for a decade in a 4-H park in Queen Anne's County.
But something interesting happened at yesterday's edition of Gilchrest's "Bull Roast" (roast beef and baked beans on a paper plate).
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who dropped out of the hunt for the GOP presidential nomination six months ago after decisive defeats in the "Super Tuesday" primaries, drew more than 1,000 people to the 4-H grounds on an afternoon threatening rain. While exact attendance figures weren't available, organizers said the total easily surpassed the size of Bob Dole's audience in 1996 -- and Dole was the party's presidential nominee at the time.
In a year in which most voters seem hardly to have tuned into the race, the gathering to see McCain was noteworthy not only for its size but for its tone. Attendees stood on picnic tables to snap McCain's picture, and later wedged into an open-air hall to try to get him to sign copies of old campaign posters and his book, "Faith of My Fathers."
The "McCainiacs," as the senator is fond of calling his fans, also brought a certain wistfulness about the way the GOP race had turned out for their man. Their behavior suggests that McCain retains a hold on an undefined segment of the GOP in Maryland and elsewhere, even as the national race has moved on without him. McCain's Maryland support is noteworthy because, with the exception of Gilchrest and a few others, nearly all the state party leaders in Annapolis and Washington endorsed eventual nominee George W. Bush over McCain before the primaries began.
"It was like the good old boys got together in a back room and said, 'We're going to go with George's boy,'" said Dan Little, a former Navy officer who lives nearby. The Texas governor is the son of former President George Bush.
"You're seeing a lot of McCain supporters who are ambivalent because they fear the Republicans are going to lose the White House. McCain just had broader appeal," Little said.
The lingering interest in the former Vietnam prisoner of war is being displayed not only in Maryland but around the country as McCain, his face bandaged from skin cancer surgery, stumps for dozens of GOP candidates.
"He is the political equivalent of gold in this election cycle," said GOP political consultant Frank Luntz, senior analyst for YROCK, a political Web site. "Other than Colin Powell, he's the single most helpful political figure for congressional candidates."
In his travels, the Arizonan must balance two goals simultaneously. He is striving not to lose touch with his newfound national constituency, which adopted his message of government reform. He formed a political action committee to fund his outside-the-Senate activities, and he has not ruled out a repeat candidacy in 2004 if Bush loses to Vice President Al Gore in November.
But McCain also is eager to demonstrate his loyalty to the GOP through his work on behalf of Gilchrest, Rep. Constance A. Morella and others.
"He's doing the smart thing," said Lyn Nofziger, a longtime aide to former President Ronald Reagan. "He's collecting a lot of brownie points, making a lot of these guys owe him by going and campaigning for them."
In a brief address, McCain delivered many of the same jokes and stories he had used as a candidate. But instead of a New Hampshire rally, this was a $25-per-person, country-style fund-raiser.
"This is what Americans politics were about when I was elected to the House in 1982," McCain said afterward. "This is what we've got to return to -- the barbecue, the gathering where people pay $5 and $10 to express their support."
Standing in the food line, McCain supporter Charles Wachsmuth of Prospect Bay said he was glad to see his man in person but disappointed that he needed to use the past tense when talking about his candidacy.
"He was very independent-minded, probably to a fault," Wachsmuth said, "but that's what the country needs."