OUTSIDE THE Republican Party's recent Ocean City convention, delegate license plates told an old GOP story:
"Pro Gun," announced one.
"Proud Member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy," laughed another on a bumper sticker, still mocking a line used by Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was defending her husband in the White House.
These cars belong to Republicans who, in the past, would rather be right than be winners. It's all they've had, of course.
Maybe the automobile decorations are just echoes of earlier, less-promising times in the Maryland GOP. But they represent a fatally stubborn cast of mind, a mind that rejects compromise in a state where Democrats out-register Republicans by 2-1.
Yet inside the convention hall, a conciliatory and practical mood ran counter to the dogged and doomed rhetoric of the parking lot.
Maryland Republicans haven't won the State House since before the flood, it seems, but this year they have a shot. Some of them seem to know it. It seems to excite them as much as espousing conservative rhetoric for its own sake.
They have a young, experienced and risk-taking gubernatorial candidate in U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County.
They think his opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, can be beaten despite her name, her campaign fund and her position.
They will run in a year when the wheels appear to come off essential aspects of government as dramatically as they come off MTA buses. Last week, the Maryland Court of Appeals took control of remapping legislative districts, handing the majority party an enormous embarrassment.
They are willing, many Republicans said, to sacrifice cherished issue positions in favor of pragmatism. Mr. Ehrlich stands with them on enough of the things they care about.
It could add up to big change: If you're the out party, you can wallow in ideology and a belief in pure Republicanism. What else have you got?
But the 2002 edition of Maryland's GOP thinks it can win. You could see it at their recent convention.
By design, perhaps, potentially unsettling personalities were not present: Helen Delich Bentley, who deeply offended Republicans by going to work in the Glendening administration, didn't show.
Rep. Constance A. Morella also chose not to show. As a reliable winner in liberal Montgomery County, Ms. Morella, too, would be regarded by some as a source of friction.
Pragmatic choices will have to be made by core Republican voters who absolutely must turn out in high numbers for Mr. Ehrlich to win. If he fails to meet the 100 percent standard, they could stay home on Election Day. They've done it before.
Mr. Ehrlich finds himself considering a quality running mate whose willingness even to consider joining with him shows his winning potential. In the past, Maryland Republicans couldn't get Republicans to run for lieutenant governor. In 1990, the GOP candidate ran with his wife, a perfectly lovely person who nevertheless symbolized weakness.
Now, Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools, sounds as if she might be willing to leave the Democratic Party, re-register as a Republican and join Mr. Ehrlich.
But some Republicans who've struggled for a two-party system in Maryland, who've suffered bitter defeats year after year, see Ms. Grasmick as a threat to their goal. If the GOP has to take a Democrat -- a Democrat closely tied to former Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- they'd almost rather not win. They choose not to see the Grasmick candidacy as a defection that proves their point: If someone with her Democratic pedigree wants a Republican to win, the GOP ought to be rejoicing.
So, Mr. Ehrlich has to do a selling job in his own party. He'll argue that Ms. Grasmick -- if she runs -- could be the best running mate available to either party. She has stature, as much or more than any of the candidates mentioned so far as potential running mates for Ms. Townsend.
Democrats are working to dissuade her. They know her defection would be a statement, countering support Ms. Townsend's gotten from the majority of ranking Maryland Democrats. A Grasmick candidacy would bring as much interest and excitement as Ms. Townsend delivered for Parris N. Glendening.
The school superintendent has deep Democratic roots. Her husband, lumber dealer and developer Lou Grasmick, has made large financial contributions to Democrats over the years. Some in the Maryland Republican Party revel in proof of their man's crossover appeal. Others, again, are appalled by it.
So, would she ever be acceptable to voters in the GOP base?
Depends a lot on whether they want to win. It's not a guarantee, but it beats running with your wife.
C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun whose column appears Sundays.