Several dozen Maryland Republicans gathered at a poolside cocktail party Friday night to kick off the annual GOP state convention when someone asked if Anne Arundel County Executive Robert A. Pascal had arrived for the conference.
All heads suddenly swung toward the questioner. Casual chitchat faded away and the Republicans returned to the topic that has almost become a party preoccupation - will Pascal seek the GOP nomination for Maryland governor in this year's election?
"All I hear is, 'what is Pascal going to do? Is he going to run? When is he going tomake up his mind?'" said State Sen. Edward P. Thomas (R-W. Md.). "When Bob (Pascal) finally got here (Saturday), I went over and touched him to make sure he was real."
Pascal, 43, has been keeping the Republican Party waiting at the altar for more than a year. He ruled out his candidacy in February and then began reconsidering. He now says he will run if Gop fund raisers can get commitments of $400,000 in campaign funds by June 1.
Pascal is considered one of the hotest GOP prospects for the governor's race because of his proven vote-getting Power in Populous Anne Arundel and his potential for offsetting traditional Democratic dominance of neighboring Baltime City and Prince Georges County.
He has been actively courted by GOP leaders who believe Maryland is ready for its first Republician governor in 12 years. They consider state Democrats vulnerable because of a potentially divisive primary and last summer's political corruption conviction of suspended Democratic Gov. Marvin Mandel.
"Bob Pascal is the only one I can see who can win it," said Baltimore city Republican Party Chairman Archie Jones. "You can't beat somebody with nobody. Who else do we have? Most of the fellows who've looked around believe Pascal's the one with the best chance."
The only Republicans to have openly sought the party's nomination - John Hardwicke, a Baltimore lawyer, and Donald Devine, a Uiversity of Maryland professor - are said to lack the name recognition, political base and campaign funds to defeat a Democratic candidate.
The pursuit of Bob Pascal flew into high gear this weekend as party leaders encouraged speculation about his candidacy, invited conventioneers and reporters to a party at Pascal's hotel suite and promised financial and campaign support in a series of private meetings.
When the former star football halfback interrupted a tedious work session with his arrival Saturday afternoon, he was quickly swamped by well-wishers beseeching him to enter the race and reporters seeking to interview him about his latest plans.
Pascal said he expects to decide by June 1 whether he can raise enough money to launch the mass media blitz he considers necessary to increase his name recognition outside the Baltimore area where he is known for this last three years as Anne Arundel County executive.
"I'm not trying to manipulate anybody and create any intrigue," he said in an interview. "I'm just trying to look at this objectively. i think the opportunity is there if you have all the ingredients. Obviously, I need party support and finances."
The ingredients Pascal says he needs are not easily attainable by Republican candidate in Maryland,where the Democrats have a 3-to-1 margin in vote registration and control most state and local offices outside GOP strongholds in Western Maryland and Baltimore County.
Members of big business and the banking world who traditionally help finance national Republican campaigns normally support Democratic candidates on a state level to assure themselves of backing a winner. Most big bankers are supporting this year's candidacy of Democratic acting Gov. Blair Lee III.
There is also no guarantee of unified party support for Pascal, a moderate Republican who was a Democrat until eight years ago. Although he has received the strong backing of top GOP elected officials, he has spent little time counseling with local party chiefs, who often reject candidates with potential statewide appeal for more conservative Republicans dutiful to local party concerns.
In 1974, GOP national committee woman Louise Gore upset then U.S. representative Lawrence Hogan in the Maryland gubernatorial primary largely by corraling support among local party officials, even though Hogan was expected to be a stronger statewide candidate. Gore went on to lose overwhelmingly in the general election.
"There's a genuine sentimentality for someone who has gone to every county and said, 'I want to be governor,'" said Baltimore County Republican Party Chairman Malcolm McKnight. "I don't want to draw a conclusion whether we are lemmings running into the ocean."
Hardwicke, 51, who has been working for the nomination for 15 months, said he is counting on that sentiment if Pascal gets into race. "There's a great deal of resentment for people who have it all and want to wait until the last minute (to enter the campaign)," he said.
Devine, 41, who began campaigning in February, said many local party members are unhappy with Pascal's procrastination. "He's hurt himself with his in-again, out-again stuff," Devine said. "the people are upset that he's not going around to meet them."
But most party leaders say that Pascal can regain any lost ground once he decides to throw in his hat. They say he will win the primary by appealing to the practical side of Republicans who want a winner in November.
"I think the reaction is like the child who wants to go to the fairgrounds and has to wait for dad to get home from work," observed Prince George's Republican Chairman Melissa Martin. "There's impatience, the desire to get things going. This is a year we're going to win. Bob Pascal is what people are waiting for."