Maryland Republicans are at a crossroads. They face a Democratic governor and legislature and a lopsided electoral map. Friction between libertarians and social conservatives continues to cause intraparty strife.

The good news: Maryland Republicans have the freedom that comes with low expectations. They may experiment without fear, lead by example and serve as a model for the nation. Here are seven strategies that may help the beleaguered state GOP jump-start its fortunes.

1. Bring disparate elements together. Grass-roots activists' loyalties are divided by parochial interests. Some are loyal to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., others to the micro-candidates mentioned as alternatives should he not run for governor in 2010. Loyalties to a county executive, legislator or candidate often outweigh partisan concerns, as do geographical considerations or personal ambitions.

Party leaders could mitigate these divisions by engaging a cross-section of these elements in drafting a statement of shared principles and policies. Developing a "Maryland GOP Manifesto" would encourage new ideas and strengthen the sense of community among the partisans who participate.

2. Expand the tent. Showing up at African-American churches two weeks before an election will not alter long-standing party loyalties. Broadening minority representation in the GOP can be accomplished only by concrete actions spanning several election cycles.

President Calvin Coolidge said, "The business of America is business." Rather than oppose minority business development programs, Republicans should loudly embrace them - and commit to making them work better.

Thanks to reforms led by then-Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, participation by women- and minority-owned businesses in Maryland contracts surged by almost $400 million, from 15.6 percent to 21 percent, from fiscal year 2003 to fiscal year 2005.

Similarly, an aggressive public-private business mentoring program that offers advice on effective business practices, financing and Minority-owned Business Enterprise (MBE) certification may earn the GOP credibility with the next generation of minority entrepreneurs.

3. Lead on taxes. The taxpayer "tea parties" may have generated noise, but they failed to initiate a meaningful discussion of alternatives to the current tax system. For years, ideas such as the flat tax, the national sales tax and the value-added tax languished along the political fringes. The GOP should educate voters about these alternatives and what they could mean for taxpayers' pocketbooks.

4. Prove Republican "red" is green. Former Governor Ehrlich signed major Chesapeake Bay cleanup legislation into law. Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold governs as an eco-friendly politician. State GOP Chairman Jim Pelura should be commended for convening a working group to help the party that created conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency continue to assert its green roots.

5. Protect commuters. State Democrats embrace exotic transportation projects such as maglev and the Red Line. It will be years before these big-ticket projects benefit commuters. By advocating for cost-effective roads projects like the Inter-county Connector and I-95 expansion, the GOP can affirm its status as the pro-commuter, anti-gridlock party.

6. Institutionalize the "loyal opposition" role. GOP criticisms of the Democratic majority are often scattershot, inconsistent and ineffective. Party leaders should take ownership of this function by utilizing a resource they previously lacked: Marylanders who have actually managed state agencies and departments for a Republican governor. Tapping their insights and expertise will help the party drive a more cohesive, effective message.

7. Prioritize voting integrity. The arrival of early voting in Maryland brings increased opportunities for mischief. State Republicans should unapologetically advocate for a voter identification requirement, as 24 other states have established. It is a battle the GOP may not win, but, it is the right thing to do.

None of these proposals is a silver bullet. But each could attract new ideas, enthusiasm and energy to a party teetering on irrelevancy. That, in itself, would be a welcome improvement to the status quo.

Richard J. Cross III, a Baltimore resident, is a former press secretary and speechwriter to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He resides in Baltimore. His e-mail is rcrossiii@comcast.net.

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