By the time Maryland's participants in the Democratic Party's mid-term conference arrived here this week, presidential politics, not issues, were on their minds.
For weeks, they had been bombarded with letters, books and policy statements from seven party leaders interested in running for president. The 10 delegates and a handful of alternates were invited to receptions and dinners and had been invited to personal interviews with some of them. One delegate had signed up as a whip for U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy but had no idea "what I'll be whipping about."
Today, as the group headed back to Baltimore, Silver Spring, Greenbelt and elsewhere, there was little evidence that the three long days and nights of wooing by the presidential hopefuls had won many converts. For the most part, the Maryland delegates went home as they had come to the event -- uncommitted to one candidate.
"I think most of us are still waiting in the weeds," said Karen Kuker-Kihl, a Prince George's County school teacher who is running for state delegate. "People came here for two reasons: to meet other Democrats and to meet the candidates. I don't think anyone is committed to anyone."
After Kennedy delivered his much-anti-cipated speech--the last by a presidential hopeful--the delegates headed for the exits. Montgomery County attorney Howard Thomas, cochair of the state party, noted, "Everybody, all the candidates, were in the same position they were in when they came."
Most of the delegates from Maryland, a liberal state and one of the few to vote for former President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, agreed with Thomas that former Vice President Walter Mondale and Kennedy remain the two frontrunners, with U.S. Sens. John Glenn and Gary Hart as possible alternatives.
The 1984 presidential sweepstakes had been the main attraction throughout the conference, overshadowing policy workshops and debates.
Within a few hours of their arrival Thursday, the Marylanders realized they had little to discuss except politics, so they disbanded their caucus.
"We had nothing really to discuss," said John Asher, the delegations's Eastern Shore representative, a retired federal worker who attended the 1980 presidential nominating convention as a Carter delegate.
So for the three days they wandered from breakfasts to conferences to receptions, being introduced to candidates anxious to sign up party stalwarts in all 50 states.
Thursday, before the conference officially opened, Mondale held a reception. On Friday, following the workshops, there was a huge reception for Kennedy, featuring a band, 7,000 pounds of lobster and as much liquor as anyone wanted.
"Everyone's looking for a candidate to latch on to," said party treasurer Ed Crawford at the Kennedy party. "Everybody has got baggage -- the question is who is going to leave it here?"
Saturday, after a day of issue workshops that many of the delegates passed up, the Marylanders had an appointment with California Sen. Alan Cranston, during which they were shown a movie about him and had 10 minutes to talk to him.
Saturday night the delegates were invited to two other events for presidential hopefuls. Former U.S. Sen Joseph Tydings (D-Md.) hosted a cheese and wine event for Hart, and Glenn rented out the Franklin Institute and Science Museum for three-hours of free hors d'oeuvres, drinks and music.
A high point for the Maryland delegation may have been today, when Democratic National Chairman Charles T. Mannatt commented from the podium that the Maryland delegation had been "so well behaved."
Gov. Harry Hughes arrived midway through the day, though most of the Maryland delegates never saw him. He attended a reception for Democratic governors, which was visited by several presidential contenders, including Kennedy, who made a point of introducing himself to each governor in front of dozens of television cameras.
Kennedy initially missed Hughes, who in his typically understated way, hesitated about whether he should inject himself into the free publicity. "Shall I let him know?" Hughes mused aloud. "I guess I better let him (Kennedy) know, otherwise he'll feel bad," Hughes joked before moving toward Kennedy.
"Now that is really laid back," said Pat Hughes, chagrined at her husband's reluctance to grab the spotlight.