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Shuffling Candidates, Cards in Md.

It's tough to say how widespread anger at Stoney Creek really is toward the president. Criticism of Democrats is discouraged, and the club rule once was: "If you're caught talking Republican, you're thrown out."

Del. Joan Cadden (D-Anne Arundel), a beautician and a member of the club for 20 years, said plenty of issues have made Republican candidates a better fit for club members, especially in national contests: gun control, helmet and seat belt laws, smoking bans, gay rights, abortion.

"None of those ideas go over well in my district," said Cadden, who is interested in a Kerry-Edwards ticket.

At the same time, the influence of Stoney Creek -- and that of old-style Democratic clubs everywhere -- has been waning. Once, every meeting drew a full house, and the hall was an obligatory stop for any politician considering a run for local or statewide office. Most of the long white tables and folding chairs that fill the hall are empty now on Wednesday nights. Membership is down from 700 two decades ago to about 300 today. And those who do attend regularly are mostly seniors who appear to be less focused on the politics than on the beer, cards, fried fish, gossip and weekly drawing from the big six wheel.

"There used to be a political battle royale at every meeting," said Frank Sobiski, 72, a retired insurance adjuster from nearby Ferndale and a poll worker who has already voted absentee for Edwards. "Now they sit here quietly until they can go eat."

In part, the club's decline can be attributed to the time crunch faced by young families. But Sobiski also thinks the scrappy organizing efforts by local Republicans have made a difference. Although Democrats still outnumber Republicans in these parts, he said, most of the Democrats are older, "and dying off."

Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), the former governor and Baltimore mayor who has famously defied his party to back Republicans for president, used to spend most nights in an Anne Arundel County townhouse he owns that is less than a half-mile from the Stoney Creek club. He agrees with Sobiski's assessment. The Democrats "lost sight of what the Republicans were doing, which is grass roots," Schaefer said.

But Schaefer also agrees that the mood among conservative Democrats is changing. He calls Bush "uninspiring" and says there is significant unease about the war and the economy. He is supporting Kerry.

The local state senator, Philip C. Jimeno (D-Anne Arundel), said that although Democrats are usually a hard sell in his district, "this time there is a lot of anger toward Bush and his policies. People are looking for an alternative." He also is a Kerry backer.

He said emotions about the war especially have been aroused at Stoney Creek since April 2003, when Marine Lance Cpl. Jason Mileo, 20, a 2000 graduate of nearby Chesapeake High School, was killed in Baghdad after being mistaken for an Iraqi soldier by U.S. troops.

"They're concerned about the cost of the war in both human terms and financially," Jimeno said.

In addition, his neighbors have been angered by the federal response to Hurricane Isabel, which brought Stoney Creek and the Patapsco River to record levels, flooding scores of homes. "There was very little relief, and what there was came slowly," Jimeno said. "People are still angry about it."

But with just a few days to the Democratic primary, Jimeno said it was still unclear which of the Democratic candidates would appeal most to those seeking an alternative to Bush.

In one corner of the hall Wednesday, a group of older members sat at what they called "the dinosaur table." The four men agreed on only one thing: that this presidential race has not been running long enough to commit to a vote. One of them, Bill Watts, 74, a retired insurance underwriter, said that when he votes, it's not for party affiliation, but "for the person who's the best man," even if he is a Republican.

Time was, such equivocation would have had him tossed out of the Stoney Creek Democratic Club. Not anymore.

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