Four years ago, Maryland Republicans spent their time at the party's national convention in Philadelphia looking for a little respect.
Lodging was at a distant, discount chain hotel. Headliners for state party fundraising events were difficult to find, and the convention's roster of featured speakers included no Marylanders.
If all that was depressing, it was at least understandable. The Maryland GOP had lost legislative seats in the 1998 election and had no reasonable expectation of winning the state for George W. Bush. It lacked even a single statewide officeholder. Looming on the horizon was a gubernatorial campaign against a rising national Democratic star, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest child of Robert F. Kennedy.
Four years later, the state GOP is enjoying more than an upgrade in lodgings. (For the record, delegates are at The Park Central near Carnegie Hall in Midtown Manhattan.)
"Does the phrase 'light years' mean anything to you?" said a laughing Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose upset victory in the 2002 governor's race recharged the Maryland GOP.
To see the difference, he said, just watch as the delegation walks onto the convention floor. "We have a real sense of pride now," Ehrlich said. "We're not irrelevant anymore."
William E. Brock III, who represented Tennessee in the House and the Senate and served as GOP national chairman before running for Senate in Maryland in 1994 against Paul S. Sarbanes, marveled at the turnabout.
"Ten years ago, the party had almost a loser complex," Brock said. "We had lost so many times in so many races, it was hard to get people to believe we could run with any prospect of winning."
That has changed in a palpable way, Brock said. "Ehrlich has changed the whole atmosphere." he said. "People really do know that it's possible to run successfully for office."
By the numbers, Maryland is still robustly Democratic. Registered Republicans are outnumbered by nearly 2 to 1, and Democrats control more than two-thirds of the legislative seats. Most experts, even those who lean Republican, predict that the state's 10 electoral votes will go to the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry.
But in ways small and large, Maryland Republicans say this year's convention will spotlight the differences that come with holding the governor's office for the first time in more than three decades.
State GOP Chairman John M. Kane said he has been "feeling like Monty Hall," fielding dozens of offers for Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to speak at the breakfasts, fundraisers and pep rallies scheduled around the action at Madison Square Garden.
Ehrlich's allure, Kane said, is that delegations want to hear from the man who vanquished a Kennedy. But Maryland's hottest political property in New York this week will be Steele, who will precede California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a prime-time speaker Tuesday evening.
Two years ago, Steele was practicing law in Prince George's County and was virtually off the political map. At a Republican fundraiser in Ocean City last week, GOP loyalists all but ordained him the party's answer to Barack Obama, the Illinois candidate for U.S. Senate who wowed the Democratic convention in Boston.
Steele has tried to play down that kind of talk, saying he's just "pleased to get the chance to showcase the state a little bit."
In part, Steele's goal will be to convince African American voters that the party is reaching out. That will be a tall order, said University of Maryland political science professor Ronald Walters.
"His effect will be overpowered by the negative attitudes most African Americans have towards the [Bush] administration," Walters said. "In the end, I doubt the fact that he spoke at the convention will be [more than] a blip for most voters."
The state party is trying to grab the attention of minority voters by sending its most diverse delegation ever to a national convention. Of the 75 delegates, 16 (or 21 percent) are minorities. That's about half the number of non-whites sent to Boston by state Democrats. Still, party officials called it progress: Minorities made up 14 percent of the delegation in 2000.
They said the convention will offer them a chance to start building a Republican bench -- a roster of candidates for state office that could help the party narrow the Democratic margins in the House of Delegates and state Senate.
Several convention delegates will be courted to run for office in 2006, Kane said. Among them are Laurie Sears, a potential candidate for House of Delegates in the Annapolis district now represented by House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D); David F. Hale, president of the Calvert County commissioners and possible challenger to appointee Sue Kullen (D) for the House seat vacated by George W. Owings III (D); and Thomas F. McKay, president of the St. Mary's County commissioners and a prospective challenger to state Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D).
"They'll call me Father John," Kane joked. "I'm like a shepherd looking for recruits."
Another difference for the Republicans this year has been their success at raising money for the president. Ehrlich's top moneyman, University of Maryland Regent Richard Hug, is also a Super Ranger, one of an elite club of donors who have raised $300,000 for the Republican National Committee.
Asked if he was pleased with the accommodations this year, Hug said he wouldn't know. He's staying at the Ritz.