Maryland's Democratic Party chairman, Nathan Landow, says "rules junkies" could stifle his party's presidential aspirations, yet Mr. Landow's own views on rules have thrown him into conflict with two powerful party leaders.
They are Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the state's most powerful Democrat, and Ronald L. Brown, the national party chairman.
Mr. Brown and Mr. Landow disagree over rules for selecting presidential convention delegates. Obscure on the surface, their differences could affect the party's ability to keep harmony between its discordant factions.
Mr. Landow's clash with Mr. Schaefer involves appointment of Maryland's representatives to the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Landow recently proposed rules that could remove the appointment power from Mr. Schaefer.
Pamela J. Kelly, an aide to Mr. Schaefer, said she was alarmed by the proposed new rules, which were not presented to the governor in advance.
"We were very, very concerned because of the specificity of the rules they were putting forth that they would lock the governor and the party into a more rigid process with no flexibility," she said.
"This could certainly be perceived as an attack against the governor," said Mary Jo Neville, currently a member of the DNC executive board. "Nate thinks he's going to decide who the DNC members are." Ms. Neville is a DNC member with whom Mr. Landow has occasionally clashed.
Mr. Landow said he had no intention of removing any of the governor's power, but only wants to open the party to wider participation from areas of the state which are sometimes left out.
His plan would create four regions, each with a representative on the DNC. No member could serve more than one term -- a restriction that would rule out virtually all the current DNC members.
The national committee positions are rewards to loyal party members. They can be significant in the shaping of the party's philosophy and in making rules that put philosophy into action, ,, Ms. Neville says.
Lanny Davis, a three-term national committeeman from Maryland who has previously been supportive of Mr. Landow, led opposition to the new rules during the meeting. Mr. Davis, who could lose his DNC position under Mr. Landow's proposed rules, is a friend and law partner of Mr. Brown, the national party chairman.
The proposed rules were put off for study over the summer, in a rebuff to Mr. Landow, who had not discussed them with Mr. Davis or the other DNC members.
Mr. Landow said he was not attempting to get rid of any DNC members.
The struggle with Mr. Brown has been under way for some time and ostensibly involves how Maryland will elect its delegates to the national conventions.
But several members of the Maryland party's executive committee, speaking on the condition they would not be named, say Mr. Landow regularly declares his interest in running against Mr. Brown for the chairmanship of the party. The rules fight serves as a vehicle for keeping differences between the two men alive and public, these officials say.
"Nate is more moderate, more to the right than Brown and he wants the party to be so too," one of them said. As a fund-raiser for presidential hopefuls such as Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, Mr. Landow has made clear his preference for the party's more moderate-to-conservative candidates.
On the matter of rules, the national party wants presidential candidates to win delegates in proportion to their share of the primary vote. Mr. Landow prefers something closer to winner-take-all -- an approach he thinks will allow the party to find a consensus candidate sooner and focus its money and effort on the Republican opponent.
Sources say Mr. Landow resents the proportional delegate selection concessions negotiated by presidential candidate Jesse L. Jackson during the 1988 campaign.
"We don't know what the effect of these rules will be but they could be a divisive thing -- this proportional aspect of it," Mr. Landow said. "What we need is to get the primary process over with as soon as there is a consensus support for a candidate, so it isn't a long-drawn-out thing all the way to the convention -- so we can focus on winning the general election."
Mr. Landow says the national rules were rushed into place without debate, but Ms. Neville says the chairman failed to present any objection to them when they were up for review.
"I don't see it as a challenge to the chairman or the party," Mr. Landow said, but he thinks others in the party share his dislike of the proportionality rules.