Like a blinking, neon light on a dark, deserted highway, the image keeps flashing in memory: some 600 Maryland Republicans wildly cheering Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole at a rally Sunday at the Montgomery County fairgrounds.
It was Mr. Dole's first campaign stop after his decisive victory in the South Carolina primary the day before. The passion of his reception in Maryland caught everyone by surprise -- even the candidate himself.
"Boy, we got a big crowd here," he told his backers, standing elbow-to-elbow, pressing in tightly toward the veteran campaigner. "I thought maybe I'd come to the wrong place."
What was happening -- here in Maryland, where residents thought their impact on the nominating process would be negligible -- was the coalescing of the campaign of the probable nominee. Two days later, in Maryland and seven other primary states, Mr. Dole crushed his opposition.
Political observers here say that many state Republicans, focusing on the primary at the last minute, settled on Mr. Dole because he was the big winner in South Carolina; because he was not Pat Buchanan, whom they saw as divisive and extreme; and because he was the candidate with the best chance of defeating President Clinton.
Also, they say, Mr. Dole suddenly was more appealing.
"He had stopped talking about Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander," said Tony Caligiuri, executive director of the Dole state campaign. "He was just talking about himself: 'This is who I am, and I'd like your support.' "
At his two Maryland stops, Mr. Dole did not mention his GOP rivals. Instead, he talked about his humble beginnings, Midwestern values and experience.
His almost folksy approach apparently worked. Exit interviews with voters indicated that Mr. Dole received widespread support from all segments of the party, including religious conservatives and those who described themselves as "very conservative."
"And his message about an open, inclusive Republican Party resonated with people," Mr. Caligiuri said. "His was the moderate, mainstream vision for the party."
Mr. Dole's comments about a unified party also could serve as the theme of the Maryland GOP. "I don't want to divide the Republican Party," he said. "I want to multiply the Republican Party."
Yesterday, 12 hours after the polls closed, the Maryland Republican Party held a "unity breakfast." The idea was to heal wounds from the primary and to begin working together for the general election, said Joyce Lyons Terhes, state GOP chairwoman.
Among those in attendance was Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who headed the state campaign of Sen. Phil Gramm until he quit the race last month. In 1994, Mrs. Sauerbrey came within 5,993 votes of defeating Parris N. Glendening and becoming Maryland's first Republican governor since 1966.
If she runs again in 1998, said Edward Weissman, a political science professor at Washington College in Kent County, she could face a GOP electorate different from the one she captured two years ago. Mr. Dole's overwhelming victory might mean that the moderate wing of the state GOP is reasserting itself, he said.
Mrs. Sauerbrey, whose 1994 campaign carried a message of shrinking government and cutting personal income taxes by 24 percent over four years, might be regarded as "too far right," Mr. Weissman said.
Nonsense, said Kevin Igoe, Mrs. Sauerbrey's political director in the gubernatorial campaign and former executive director of the state Republican Party.
"If she's so far right," he said, "how did she get 49 percent of the vote against Parris Glendening?"
That's a question to be answered in the next year or two. V VTC First, Maryland Republicans must figure out how to defeat Mr. Clinton in November -- a formidable task in a state where, despite recent GOP gains, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1.
With no serious opposition in Tuesday's Democratic primary, Mr. Clinton received 241,781 votes. That's nearly as much as the combined total -- 248,228 -- of the nine Republicans on the ballot.
"I think Maryland's going to do very well for the president in the fall," said Mary Jo Neville, vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.
Pub Date: 3/07/96