Although former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign signs abounded at their annual Lincoln Day Dinner, Howard County's Republicans are uncertain about whom to back for their party's presidential nomination next year.
Romney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and even current New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg were mentioned by various attendees who were asked their preference.
In contrast, however, everyone at the dinner appeared to know exactly how they feel about Democratic U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacy.
The mention of Clinton's name drew a round of boos from the 150 or so party stalwarts who gathered at the political event at Turf Valley Resort last week.
Loretta Shields, the county party chairwoman talked about how Republicans must bounce back from their 2006 losses.
"I don't want to wake up in November 2008 and hear them say 'President Hillary Clinton,'" she said, prompting the boos. Clinton was mentioned again as members were urged to bid on items in a silent auction.
One item was labeled "For the Dog Lover. A basket filled with goodies for the Republican dog, including your own Hillary Clinton chew toy (for animal use only)," donated by the Yuppy Puppy, a Main Street Ellicott City boutique.
Carol Fisher, a local Democrat who is volunteering for the Clinton effort, said the chew toy joke doesn't bother her, "but it's pretty low-class for them. I guess it just shows how frightened they are."
The Republicans held no straw poll for president - something the Democrats did at their recent Jefferson Jackson Day dinner - but party members had very different ideas about who should be nominated to succeed President Bush.
Romney's campaign had the only organized effort at the dinner, led by Louis M. Pope, a former county party chairman and current Republican National Committeeman for Maryland, who said he is a member of Romney's national finance team.
"He [Romney] represents the values of the Republican Party - pro-business, pro-life. He's a family guy," Pope said. "I think he can win Howard County and the state of Maryland," in the GOP's February primary.
Like most activists in both parties, Charles C. Feaga, a former Howard County councilman, is looking for a likely winner, and he says he believes Giuliani is ahead of the pack.
"If you want to keep the party alive, you need to pick someone who can win," Feaga said.
Trent Kittleman, the former executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, said she favors former Thompson, who portrays a Manhattan district attorney on the television show Law and Order.
"He'd make a great president. He knows how to talk to people," she said, explaining that she sees Thompson as a peacemaker - someone who could calm the political bickering. "I'm sick of all the partisanship."
Former Howard state Sen. Martin G. Madden worries that next year may see another third-party effort like Ross Perot's bid in 1992 that helped Democrat Bill Clinton win. Among Republicans, he said, "I'm waiting to be wowed."
"I'm trying to draft Bloomberg," said Randy Nixon, a western county farm owner.
Pope held out little hope that a Republican could win Maryland in the general presidential election, but said the party's goal is to be competitive.
"We want to make Maryland a battleground to make the Democratic nominee spend time and money," he said.
Sandra B. Schrader, who lost a state Senate re-election bid, and former County Council candidate Donna Thewes said they have not made a choice.
"It's way too early," said Thewes, of North Laurel.
Shields tried to rally her troops for the presidential election next year and the 2010 statewide contests.
"Although 2006 didn't have the results we wanted," she said, she asked candidates in last year's election to stand for an ovation "so that in the future, you'll want to do this again."
She added, "We've had six months to sulk and mope" and it's now time to get busy and organize a new grass-roots party-building campaign.
To stir Republican passions, she read newspaper quotes of comments made at the Democratic dinner by County Executive Ken Ulman and Gov. Martin O'Malley about Democratic successes in Howard.
The Democrats were crowing about the county going their way, Shields said. "Ladies and gentlemen, we can't let this happen. I hope this energizes you more than anything," she said.
Democrats did well in 1998, she recalled former Lt. Governor Michael S. Steele saying, but Republicans came back to win the governor's race in 2002.
"Let's go after some disenchanted Democrats, especially when O'Malley has gone through the Rainy Day Fund and Ken Ulman is looking for new ways to tax us," she said.
The evening's speaker was Blair Lee IV, a conservative newspaper columnist in Montgomery County, and the son of former acting Gov. Blair Lee III.
He told the Republicans that unless they start making inroads into Maryland's large block of African-American voters - who vote 9-1 Democratic - they are not likely to be successful in Maryland, one of the five most liberal voting states in the nation, in his view.
"If Republicans don't find areas in which to reach out to African-Americans, they'll become irrelevant," he said.
He accused The Sun and The Washington Post of "palpable media bias" in favor of liberals and Democrats, but he said he feels that as blacks become more prosperous over time, they are more likely to migrate to the GOP.