A drive to raise Maryland's drinking age for beer and wine, thwarted for years by one House committee and its powerful chairman, suddenly seemed likely to succeed tonight after the committee reversed itself, approving a measure that would raise the legal age from 18 to 21.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 20 to 3 to raise the age after supporters of the measure in the State Senate and outside the legislature had all but abandoned hope of success on that issue.

Last year a bill raising the legal age from 18 to 19 sailed through the Senate but failed in the House panel by a single vote, and this year Gov. Harry Hughes and other supporters of tougher alcohol laws have focused their efforts on a package of different measures that would tighten penalties for alcohol-related driving offenses.

House Judiciary Chairman Joseph Owens (D-Montgomery), who had been credited with halting the drinking age bills and who has become the focus of an intensive lobbying campaign by citizen groups, pledged to his committee that "I'm going to see [that the bill] gets through the full House, one way or another."

If the House does approve the bill -- which now appears likely -- a new legal drinking age would almost certainly be enacted before the end of the session, since the state Senate already has approved a similar proposal.

The most likely dispute would appear to be whether the new legal age should be 19 or 21. A State Senate committee approved a bill last month making the age 21, but it was amended to 19 on the Senate floor before being passed, in part because many senators believed a three-year increase had no change of passage by Owens' committee.

The Judiciary Committee went out of its way tonight to amend the drinking bill before it from an age of 19 to 21, even as committee members declared that their minds had been changed by public pressure. "Last year there were very few calls and letters," said Del. Charles Kountz (D-Baltimore County), who voted against any increase in the drinking age last year but supported this session's bill. "That's not the case this year."

The committee's vote came after months of controversy during a session that has made alcohol and drunken driving its bandwagon issue, with more than 80 bills introduced on the subject. Hughes' own package of six bills passed the Senate earlier this month and now is also before the House Judiciary panel, which is likely to vote on it later this week.