TAMPA, FLA. — — For three days, they hobnobbed with Republican stars, were pursued by reporters, cast ballots for their party's presidential nominee and generally had a taste of life at the center of the political universe.
Today, Maryland's delegation to the Republican National Convention returns home to a state where Mitt Romney is given little chance of carrying in November and a slate of congressional candidates is being heavily outspent in every district but one.
In other words, state Republicans come back to reality.
But even though deep-blue Maryland is flyover territory for the presidential campaigns — its voters haven't backed a Republican for president in 24 years — members of the state's delegation said they are optimistic they will have an impact, if not a win.
"If we can get higher voter turnout than we do traditionally, it'll help increase our credibility and our visibility, and they'll stop saying Maryland doesn't count," said Audrey Scott, a former chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party and a Romney delegate. "We're trying to make a statement that Maryland is in play."
Even in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than a 2-to-1 margin — and President Barack Obama's campaign offices outnumber Romney's by a 5-to-1 margin — the GOP has some moves it can make to influence the election and begin to build a stronger party before the next national convention in 2016.
"Our job," said Romney's Maryland campaign co-chair, Louis Pope, "is to make Maryland relevant."
To do so, party officials and independent observers said, Republicans will have to jump on every opportunity that comes their way.
Tie Democrats down
It has long been the case that Marylanders' fights in presidential years take place in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Both of the state's political parties will bus volunteers into those battlegrounds to connect with and energize voters there. The "ground game" is all about deciding where to put resources — people and money — and that could provide a small opening for the state's beleaguered GOP.
Pope argues that the more aggressively his party can organize in Maryland, the more it forces Democrats to keep resources within the state to play defense, depriving Virginia and Pennsylvania of the added manpower that could make a difference in a close race.
"Our job is to tie the Democrats down to Maryland," said Pope, whose organizational prowess helped the Romney campaign win a clean sweep of delegates in the state's April primary. "Our job is forcing the Democrats to push for a full ground game so that they're not sending people out of state."
The sheer number of volunteers Democrats have at their disposal gives them a big advantage in that effort. But Pope argues that the GOP doesn't have to match the Obama campaign one-for-one to make a difference.
State Republicans take credit for forcing Al Gore to campaign in Maryland in the fall of 2000, for instance, even though the state was not in play that year.
And any time Gore spent in Maryland, Pope pointed out, was time he didn't spend in Florida, where he ultimately lost the race to George W. Bush.
Close the gap
Barring a drastic change of course in the race, Romney won't win Maryland — but he could lose by less. And that might have an impact on how candidates look at the state in 2016 and 2020.
Obama carried Maryland with 62 percent of the vote in 2008, but that unusually large percentage reflected the widespread dissatisfaction voters felt with Bush and the excitement they had for Obama. In 1996, Bill Clinton won Maryland with 54 percent. Four years before that, he took 50 percent.
Maryland Republicans have a rare opportunity to close the gap in the presidential race this year by capitalizing on four controversial initiatives placed on the ballot. Alongside the presidential and congressional contests, voters will be asked whether to uphold laws passed by the General Assembly that would offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, allow same-sex marriages, expand gambling and redraw the state's congressional districts.
Many of those issues cross partisan lines. The trick for state Republicans is convincing independents who might oppose the new congressional boundaries, for instance, that they should also punish the party that approved them.
"I plan to make the voters aware of how outrageous this map is and then follow up and say, 'OK, what should you do about it?' " said state Republican Party Chairman Alex X. Mooney.
He said he plans to run targeted advertising tying the ballot initiatives to specific candidates: "Don't vote for the Democrat for whom this was rigged."
Build for 2014
An open seat for governor in 2014 — and the potential for a messy Democratic primary — could hand Republicans the best statewide electoral opportunity they've had in years.
To capitalize, though, the GOP will likely have to remain unified and avoid a heated primary of its own. Given the number of Republican candidates already eyeing the seat, that will be a tall order.
"They can hope for a disorganized Democratic Party and fuel that dissension," said Thomas F. Schaller, a nationally recognized expert on presidential politics who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and contributes to the op-ed page of The Baltimore Sun. Doing so, he said, would "put them in a position to be there like a trapeze to catch the governor's race if it drops."
Electing a governor in two years would give state Republicans a big boost to win Maryland for a GOP presidential nominee in four.
But so far this year, the party has not shown it is disciplined enough to clear the field for a favored candidate — even when that candidate is an incumbent. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the vulnerable congressman from Maryland's 6th District, faced two Republican state lawmakers in the April primary.
Scott, meanwhile, lost her bid to be the party's national committeewoman at the GOP state convention in April. She was beaten by insurgent candidate Nicolee Ambrose.
Win down ballot
Little would give the state party a bigger jolt of energy than pulling off an upset on the congressional level this year, particularly in the marquee 6th District.
Bartlett, a 10-term incumbent who hasn't faced a difficult race in years, is being outgunned by Democratic challenger John Delaney after his district was redrawn by lawmakers in Annapolis. Turning that tide would not only be a momentum-builder for the party, it would also free up a better offense for other GOP candidates.
"What makes us relevant is giving them a very hard fight in the House and the Senate," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican.
In fact, Republican candidates don't necessarily have to win to have an impact beyond the state's borders. Raising enough money to pose a threat would pressure Democratic incumbents such as Sen. Ben Cardin and Baltimore County Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger to hold on to their campaign funds rather than funneling that money to at-risk incumbents in other parts of the country.
So far, though, it hasn't happened.
"It's important that we do the best we can in those congressional races so that those candidates can't give help to Obama or other candidates — we want to make sure they spend their money here," said state Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Howard County Republican. "It's bigger than just the presidential race."
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