MESSAGE TO Democrats who emerged victorious in last Tuesday's election: Here come the Republicans!
That's not meant to imply the GOP is about to take control of the State House. Not in Maryland, one of the most lopsidedly Democratic states in the nation.
But this small minority party is slowly resurfacing. This year could mark a step on its journey toward achieving respectability.
In some counties, Republicans have achieved success in signing up voters: 10,000 new GOP partisans in Howard County; 9,200 in Anne Arundel County; 8,500 in Baltimore County; 6,100 in Harford County and 5,300 in Carroll County, where the GOP now is the majority party.
The new suburbs are becoming conservative in outlook and Republican in voting habits.
That bodes well for the crop of Republicans recruited to run in local elections this year. Like the Orioles, the Maryland GOP recently decided there's only one way to re-gain the top rung -- build a firm foundation, a ''farm club'' of promising rookies and local office-holders.
In the emerging Republican strongholds of the new suburbs, there are encouraging signs:
*In Anne Arundel, former state House minority leader Robert Neall is the odds-on favorite to sweep to victory in November. Even high-ranking Democrats -- from the governor on down -- are singing Mr. Neall's praises.
*In Harford, former Bel Air Mayor Geoffrey Close is given a good chance to defeat Eileen Rehmann in the general election. He, too, is the recipient of behind-the-scenes assistance from some key Democrats.
*In Carroll, the three Republican candidates for county commissioner could sweep in November.
*In Howard, former deputy school superintendent Charles Ecker has a shot at upsetting incumbent Elizabeth Bobo. The catch: lack of money. Ms. Bobo has a hefty war chest, and donors are terrified that if they give to Mr. Ecker, Ms. Bobo will never forget their heresy.
*In Baltimore County, Republican nominee Roger Hayden could capitalize on the tax revolt and anti-growth movement that cost two councilmen their jobs last Tuesday. If Rep. Helen D. Bentley decides to adopt Mr. Hayden as her special project, the Republican nominee could give County Executive Dennis Rasmussen a serious scare.
In legislative races, Republicans should add to their slim ranks in Montgomery, Harford, Washington and especially Howard County, where local candidates have been laying the groundwork since 1986.
And in Baltimore County, Republicans hold the upper hand in the northern and central regions. Popular moderate Sen. F. Vernon Boozer could emerge as a more vocal leader of the county's Republican clan. Also look for the county's top party leader, attorney Richard Bennett, to be named U.S. attorney for Maryland -- a high-visibility post that could open a broad array of political options.
L On the councilmanic level, there are some bright spots, too.
Harford County Council President Jeffrey Wilson, one of the region's handful of local Republican office holders, has done a splendid job in his brief time. The Republicans stand a good chance to retain their other council seat, held by Joanne Parrott.
In Anne Arundel County, Diane Evans is viewed as the favorite to win a Republican council seat in November. Over in Montgomery County, re-drawn councilmanic lines could mean the election of one or two Republicans.
And in Howard County, GOP leaders quietly talk about gaining a majority on the council. There's already one Republican there, Charles Feaga, and two articulate and aggressive challengers -- Darrel Drown, who nearly won four years ago, and Dennis Schrader.
What seems to be working in Howard could be a model for other local operations. Instead of feuding over ideological purity, Howard Republicans have focused on voter-registration drives and a search for quality candidates.
The Howard GOP has been unstinting in its registration drives, and its commitment to recruit and train candidates for the long haul. The party has picked candidates without excessive ideological baggage, who can appeal to the broader spectrum of county voters.
All this still leaves the GOP a long way from mounting credible opposition to the Democrats. Major population centers remain overwhelmingly Democratic.
Yet there's a growing tendency for suburban voters to cross party lines. Maryland favored George Bush in 1988, Ronald Reagan in 1984, and Mac Mathias every time out. Young adults are giving Republicans the edge in new registrations. Success may lie in fielding attractive and moderate candidates, relentlessly signing up voters and recognizing that this will take years.
Yes, the Republicans are coming. But don't look for truly dramatic advances until later this decade.