Three out of every four years, the Montgomery County Democrats' Annual Spring Ball gives warring factions of the party one night of gentle political waltzing, a temporary truce between elections.
Not so in the watershed election year of 1986. Last night the party's $35-a-head dinner-dance in Silver Spring, which drew 750 people, was more roller derby than minuet.
Nearly every Democratic candidate for local, state and federal office from Maryland attended the event, at the Indian Spring country club, jostling for attention and plotting their neighbor's victory or defeat at the polls in the Democratic primary election this September.
"You have to show up here," said former state senator Victor L. Crawford. "You're not going to get any votes if you do, but you lose votes if you don't. Why, there'd be a whispering campaign if you didn't show."
Incumbent state Sen. Laurence Levitan sought Crawford's advice on how best to cope with Steve Leas, an experienced organizer of Democratic campaigns. Leas was telling everyone within earshot about his recent decision to challenge Levitan this summer.
At one point, Levitan heard a rumor suggesting that he might also face a challenge from perennial candidate Anthony P. Puca.
"The more the merrier," Levitan said with barely a smile.
Much of the talk tonight in the sea of sequined, strapless gowns and blue tuxedo shirts was about the increasingly lively campaign for governor between state Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Both attended the party. It was Sachs' eighth appearance, Schaefer's first.
"I don't have the same mountain to climb here that my opponent does," said Sachs, who recently won the endorsement of Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist and 33 other local party activists. "Montgomery has a historical view of Annapolis that is suspicious of the old ways."
"The mayor represents a Muldoon tradition," said Sachs, using the derogatory term for a state legislator.
Rockville Mayor Steven Van Grack, who stood at Schaefer's side as he greeted guests, said many Montgomery Democrats support Schaefer because "they like what he's done in Baltimore."
"If you judge on past performance, he's a very strong candidate here," said Van Grack.
Although Sachs has recently sharpened his attacks on the mayor, an apparent feeling of party harmony -- and the prodding of a photographer -- led the two politicians to pose together warmly for a photograph.
Meanwhile local Democratic Chairman Jay S. Bernstein was waiting for the dinner and speeches to end so that he could don his "J. Bernstein for County Council" lapel pin. "I have to wait until after the program -- then I can be partisan," he said.
The ball, which raises money for the county's Democratic Central Committee, marked a passing of sorts for Gilchrist, who plans to leave politics this year to study for the Episcopal priesthood.
Gilchrist, who has been coming to the event for nearly 20 years, said last night's party would probably be his last for a while.
"It's going to be the last regular one, I can assure you," said Gilchrist.