They have massed across the state, grabbing legislativ seats, upsetting a couple of county executives and capturing an entire congressional district. Now these well-heeled warriors are regrouping for an even bigger prize: the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski.
More than 500 Republicans, self-confident from their electoral victories, gathered at a Linthicum hotel last week for the annual Lincoln Day Dinner. Gazing toward 1992, Joyce L. Terhes, the state GOP chairwoman, gave the assembled troops their marching orders.
It was time, she declared, to "remove Babs."
"Wouldn't it be nice to have a member of the U.S. Senate who supports the president, . . . who supports the flag?" asked Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel. He received applause for his reference to Ms. Mikulski's votes against sending U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf and an amendment barring the dishonoring of the U.S. flag.
A half-dozen Republicans have filed the necessary papers or have said they are considering running against Ms. Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat making her first run for re-election.
State and national GOP figures, saying Ms. Mikulski is particularly vulnerable as a first-term senator, hope to paint her as a liberal politician out of touch with more conservative voters.
"Maryland is a state we're going to be looking at very carefully," said Wendy Burnley of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which plans to conduct a poll measuring voter opinion and possible candidate match-ups.
Despite GOP successes in other Maryland races, however, political consultants say it will be extremely difficult to defeat Ms. Mikulski, a scrappy campaigner who has forged strong bonds with white-collar liberals and blue-collar conservatives alike.
"If you can put together a coalition like that, you're unbeatable," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Political Report, a Washington newsletter. "The Republicans would have to hope for a miracle to beat her."
Two Republican candidates have already filed for the 1992 race: Joseph I. Cassilly, the 40-year-old Harford County state's
attorney, and Stuart Hopkins, 42, a Caroline County consultant on issues relating to disabled people.
Others considering the race include Southern Marylander and best-selling author Tom Clancy; Alan L. Keyes, the Republican Senate nominee who lost to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., in 1988; and Joshua I. Smith, head of a Montgomery County computer consulting company and chairman of the U.S. Commission on Minority Business Development.
Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, also is said to be pondering a Senate run, although she dampened that speculation.
"I have no plans to do anything other than what I'm doing right now," said Mrs. Bentley, who attended the Lincoln Day Dinner. "But I don't close any doors."
Republican officials say the feisty Lutherville congresswoman would be the strongest challenger, although they privately doubt she will enter the race.
"I'm giving it serious thought," Mr. Keyes said of the Senate contest. "This is a good time for Republicans. Republicans are on the move."
Mr. Keyes, whom Mr. Sarbanes defeated by 62 percent to 38 percent in 1988, has been raising money for Maryland GOP candidates through his political action committee, Campaign for Maryland's Future.
The PAC recently mailed 12,000 fund-raising letters stating: "The number one task before all Republicans in the state of Maryland must be the defeat of United States Senator Barbara A. Mikulski."
The letter -- which says Mr. Keyes is undecided about the race -- highlights the senator's "historic vote against stopping Saddam Hussein," the Iraqi president, and charges Ms. Mikulski with making "consistent votes for higher taxes and more wasteful spending."
Mr. Clancy, author of "The Hunt for Red October" and other high-technology thrillers, has been approached by Republican officials to run.
Two years ago, House GOP leaders urged the Calvert County author to challenge former Democratic Representative Roy P. Dyson. He turned them down.
"I haven't made any decision," he said when reached at his home. And he declined to qualify his intentions, saying, "I'm not leaning; I'm just thinking."
Mr. Smith, chairman of Maxima Corp. and a fund-raiser for President Bush, has told state GOP officials he is interested in running against Ms. Mikulski. Mr. Smith did not return phone calls.
During the Lincoln Day Dinner, Mr. Cassilly distributed cards to the guests, touting his experience as a prosecutor and author of legislation on drunken driving, child abuse and weapons violations.
An activist for the rights of the disabled, he has used a wheelchair since he fell from a helicopter as an Army Ranger during the Vietnam War.
"She votes the bleeding heart agenda," Mr. Cassilly said of the Baltimore Democrat. He predicted most Marylanders "would not agree with her votes."