When leaders of the state's controlling political party take a long look at themselves, not all are satisfied with what they see.
All around them their Republican opponents are making strong gains in voter registration rolls and at the polls, where they are chipping away at what once was a near Democratic monopoly on political offices. And while Democrats still have the upper hand in most areas and levels of Maryland government, party activists are concerned that their image could stand a makeover.
In an effort to bring more stability -- and a greater sense of appeal -- back to the party, Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-W.Md., and a handful of other Democrats are looking into forming a state chapter of the Democratic Leadership Council, which serves as a policy outlet for moderate to conservative party members.
Formed six years ago, the DLC has chapters in nearly two dozen states and offers platforms for Democrats eager to disassociate themselves from the national party's liberal philosophy but without leaving the party.
"We do well when we're seen as the party of the people," said Poole, whose stature in the party soared this year when he was named majority leader in the state House of Delegates. "We've done poorly when we're seen as the party of the government."
In part, some Democrats are beginning to blame themselves for poor election turnouts and believe that getting more voters to the polls could reap benefits for the party.
"I find very little enthusiasm [for elections], particularly in the city," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer. "As I travel over the state, I don't find any enthusiasm. I think it's time the Democratic Party looked at this."
In what state party chairman Nathan Landow called a "pump-up session," Schaefer hosted a breakfast meeting Friday in Annapolis where Democrats examined their party's role in the upcoming congressional and presidential elections.
State Democrats are hoping to bask in the national spotlight when attention is focused on Maryland's March 3 primary next year. The state legislature approved the early primary during the last session, placing the election second nationally after New Hampshire.
Landow said the DLC is catching on among some Democrats. "There are some [Democrats] who might be comfortable with the message and others who won't be," Landow said. "But it's a good resource for candidates."
Poole, who traveled to Washington Friday to meet with DLC leaders, said a Maryland chapter will be successful only if it is formed to address the state's particular needs.
While most state voters are concerned about such nationally controversial issues as the death penalty and gun bans, Poole explained, their main worries are about more routine matters.
"They say, 'Are my streets going to be safe?,' " he said. " 'Am I going to have a public school system that works?' "
Del. Charles J. Ryan, a Prince George's County Democrat who also teaches college political science courses, said the DLC appeals to many middle-level conservative party members who feel they no longer can support liberal positions set by national party leaders.
"The moderate guys here feel they've been tossed out of the party," said Ryan, a liberal on many social issues who found some voters dismissing him in the last election for his opposition to abortion. "I felt I had it thrown in my face that I was not a good Democrat because I was against abortion."
Ryan said the DLC could offer political support for Democrats who want to serve their constituents' local needs without having to worry about how they are viewed on controversial national issues.
But, however Democrats may feel about the move toward a more "centrist" party policy, Republicans are taking the news as a sign that GOP strategy is working.
"I think it shows the [Democratic] party is very concerned with the gains the Republican Party has made here in Maryland," said GOP party head Joyce L. Terhes. "I think they see the shift to a more conservative philosophy around the country."
Although she said she will watch developments within the party, Terhes said she does not believe voters renew their faith in Democrats simply on the basis of a local DLC chapter.