Message to Maryland's Republican Party leadership: Stop reading your own press clippings. The immediate future is not as bright as you think.
Judging from a recent GOP Lincoln Day Dinner, you would think the party is on the verge of sweeping the state's congressional races next year. As party chairwoman Joyce Terhes put it, the time has come to "retire Babs" -- Mikulski, that is, the popular Democratic senator from Highlandtown.
In truth, 1992 could give Republicans a shot at challenging some of Maryland's entrenched Democrats in the House.
Redistricting probably will force Democratic incumbents such as Tom McMillen, Beverly Byron and even Benjamin Cardin into unfamiliar terrain. But at the same time, two of the GOP's own incumbents could be in jeopardy: Montgomery's Constance Morella and new 1st District Rep. Wayne Gilchrest.
The trouble with the GOP's optimism is that the electorate does not seem to blame incumbent congressmen for problems in Washington. Which brings up Ms. Mikulski. Is she vulnerable to a strong challenge? Is her brand of populist liberalism out of step with voters?
Ms. Mikulski may be a raving liberal on Capitol Hill, but back home she harps on conservative themes that make her popular with voters who went Republican in 1990.
She may have opposed the president's gulf war resolution, but Ms. Mikulski is second to none in pledging allegiance to our men in uniform when speaking in Maryland.
She can hammer away against waste and government debt as well as Republican Rep. Helen Bentley -- even while she votes for higher social spending.
And she knows how to keep key groups happy -- for instance, railing against the president's proposed free-trade agreement with Mexico, much to the joy of labor unions.
All this makes Ms. Mikulski a tough cookie to crumble. Her base in the Baltimore region remains solid, especially in the city and nearby neighborhoods. She is a funny and entertaining speaker, enchanting voters. She comes across as a likable voice of the working class.
How do you offset these pluses? The GOP lacks candidates of stature. The list is short on statewide political experience but long on notoriety in the business world, the book world or the academic world of Republican conservatism.
Even the GOP's best hope, Representative Bentley, fares so poorly in polls against Ms. Mikulski that she probably will bide her time, waiting for 1994 when the odds should be much better against Paul Sarbanes, the state's far more vulnerable Democratic senator.
Going after Ms. Mikulski might prove a pleasant diversion, but it seems a losing proposition. Even with President Bush on the ticket, even with GOP attempts to pummel Ms. Mikulski for voting against the use-of-force resolution, her personal popularity may not diminish.
Moreover, concentrating too much on the 1992 races could deflect the GOP from a far more important objective: rebuilding the once-moribund Maryland party from the ground up. The stunning advances of 1990 could set the stage for far more crucial gains in 1994.
The governorship looms as a prize within reach, especially if the GOP nominee is Anne Arundel County's widely respected chief executive, Robert Neall.
The current Democratic slugfest in the State House, which shows no signs of abating, could so disgust the public that voters elect Mr. Neall and a large number of Republican state legislators.
But that will require long-range planning by the GOP, including ,, an intensive recruitment program to attract quality candidates to run in redrawn General Assembly districts. It also will require a major fund-raising effort to persuade a candidate such as Mr. Neall that the party is serious about underwriting costly statewide campaigns.
Republicans may never have a better chance than 1994 to make long-term gains. In Baltimore County, for instance, new GOP County Executive Roger Hayden is off to a great start. Republicans may soon claim a majority on the county council. The defection of former Democratic Sen. Frank Kelly gives the GOP the upper hand in putting together a county-wide #i steamroller.
In Howard County, new GOP executive Chuck Ecker has taken a tough stand against rampant government spending. He's unpopular in many quarters, but his pragmatic hold-the-line approach could prove popular by 1994. A Republican majority on the county council that year is a distinct possibility.
The outlook in Anne Arundel is also bright, as it is in Harford and Carroll counties. Even in Montgomery County, GOP inroads of 1990 could lead to major advances.
Still, Maryland Republicans should hold their applause. They are not yet in a position to sweep congressional Democrats from office. One step at a time, please.
Senator Mikulski may be secure in 1992, but Senator Sarbanes and other Democrats seeking election in 1994 had better watch out. Even in liberal Maryland, the public mood is gradually turning more conservative -- and Republican.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.