Steny Hoyer was still standing there, smiling, behind a podium in the cavernous ballroom of the Baltimore Hilton. He had just finished telling his followers that he was withdrawing from Maryland's Democratic gubernatorial primary to become Acting Gov. Blair Lee III's running mate.
As the audience turned its attention from Hoyer to a nearby liquor bar and the television cameras clicked off, a well-tanned man with white hair strode down the long aisle and shook Hoyer's hand.
Heads turned. The cameras began whirring again. Here was Attorney General Francis (Bill) Burch, a man who is challenging Lee for the nomination, a man who very much wanted Hoyer to join his own ticket, barging in on an opponent's press conference.
"Congratulations," Burch said to Hoyer. "Let me be the first to shake your hand."
Then he turned toward the press, which had gathered in an crowded semicircle around him and unleased an attack on the meaning of what Hoyer had just said and done.
"What we now have is the Washington suburbs (Lee is from Montgomery; Hoyer from Prince George's) against the Baltimores," said Burch.
"The race now pits the politicians of Annapolis against the outsiders. It pits the rich, monied interests against the middle and working classes. The median income in suburban Washington is $20,000 a year. In Baltimore, it's around $15,000.
"The Lee-Hoyer ticket features Lee's patronage power and the Democratic organization in Prince George's led by Peter O'Malley, a power broker. It says to the people of this state that this is the ticket of the monied interests, that Baltimore is out of it."
Although Burch's presence at Hoyer's swan song was unexpected - "It was a bush league thing to do," said Bruce Bereano, Hoyer's aide - his criticisms served as a warning of what the Lee-Hoyer ticket will be up against from now until the September primary.
In a state long dominated by the Democratic organizations of Baltimore, Lee and Hoyer have gone against tradition by forming a team from the Washington suburbs. Burch and the other candidates for governor - Baltimore County Executive Theodore Venetoulis, Baltimore City Council President Walter Orlinsky and former state transportation head Harry Hughes - will press this geographical theme for as long as they stay in the state."
Steven Gelobter, Venetoulis' campaign manager, sounded the theme yesterday morning, in a statement that almost followed Burch's line for line. "This-Hoyer ticket," Gelobter said, "pits the Washington suburbs against Baltimore and the rest of the race.
The Venetoulis camp also jumped on the fact that both Lee and Hoyer have made their political names in Annapolis, Hoyer as a state senator for 12 years and Lee as a state senator, lieutenant governor and acting governor for two decades.
"The old-line pols have ganged up," Gelobter said, "and put it all together."
Venetoulis himself declined comment on the Lee-Hoyer combination yesterday. He is expected to elaborate on his campaign manager's statements at a press conference today.
Lee and Hoyer moved quickly yesterday to counter the attacks.
"Geography doesn't mean a damn thing," said Lee. "It's the ability and capabilities of the individuals that count. Steny's voting record for the city (Baltimore) is better than some of the city's senators."
Said Hoyer: "Prince George's and Montgomery are two entirely different subdivisions. Historically, they've presented two entirely different points of view. Prince George's actually has more in common with Baltimre City than with Montgomery. Proximity aside, it's a balanced ticket."
Today, when Lee introduces Hoyer as his candidate for lieutenant governor, he is expected to underline the Lee-Hoyer ticket's concern for Baltimore by announcing that Hoyer, if elected, will have his own office in the city and will serve as a bridge between Baltimore and Annapolis.
There are several indications that a Lee-Hoyer ticket is being looked upon favorably by many of the Democratic leaders in Baltimore. Mayor William Donald Schaefer said in an interview yesterday that he was pleased that Hoyer would be joining Lee's ticket.
"I think a lot of Steny," said Schaefer. "He's done an awful lot for Baltimore over the years. We consider him a friend."
In addition to Schaefer, whose endorsement is said to be pivotal for any gubernatorial ticket, the Lee-Hoyer ticket may also be attractive to the other powerful city leaders - state Sen. Harry McGuirk and Del. Benjamin Cardin.
The Lee-Hoyer camp argued yesterday that their combination offers sufficient diversity. In Lee, the ticket has a droll, 61-year-old patrician with a campaign bankroll of more than $800,000. Hoyer, at 38, offers energy and a field organization that was considered the equal of Venetoulis'.
Hoyer said yesterday that it was his inability to attract money that knocked him out of the race. "We have the money now," he said. "Our team will be hard to beat."