OCEAN PINES, MD. -- Seven of them are braced in chairs, and the eighth has sent a written excuse. They are waiting for questions from a small group of Republican women and keeping faith that afternoons such as this, spent over roast beef at a country club in the scrub pine of Worcester County, will pay off.
They are after the seat held by embattled Democratic Rep. Roy P. Dyson, but for now their eyes are on each other, a group of Republican hopefuls large enough for a polo match. Question one at the gathering is on the federal deficit, and the answers come flying. This may be a race for Congress, but it seems more like a spelling bee or civics quiz.
Amend the Constitution, says Richard F. Colburn.
Kill grants to the arts, says Perry Weed.
Give the president more power, says Mark Frazer.
Raise taxes, says Wayne T. Gilchrest.
Don't raise taxes, says Luis Luna.
Hold down spending, says Barry Sullivan.
"You can't spend money you don't have," sums up Raymond J. Briscuso.
Charles Grace, who has twice run unsuccessfully for the seat, is the only absentee.
After a decade of Democratic domination in Maryland's 1st Congressional District and a near upset in 1988, the Republican Party's prospects rest on the conservative and the liberal, the already successful and the newly ambitious, native sons, immigrants, technocrats, a dentist, a teacher and part-time house painter, and a man who took waving lessons from a clown, each trying to say something that GOP voters will remember in the Sept. 11 primary.
Some of the candidates have been plotting for more than two years, ever since Dyson was stung by accounts of his ties to defense contractors and the suicide of his chief aide. Having narrowly defeated political novice Gilchrest in 1988, Dyson is considered by Republican strategists to be one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.
That, and the promise of help from the national Republican Party in the Nov. 6 general election, has touched off a frenzy of interest in the seat. Two years ago, Gilchrest and another political unknown were the only entrants in the laggard GOP primary, which occurred before Dyson's troubles began. Fewer than 15,000 people voted.
For Republicans in the 1st District, it's a curse of plenty that has left voters shaking their heads and party officials hoping that the chaotic field leads to an energized electorate, not civil war.
"We need them for the variety, but not that many," said Dean Perdue, a Worcester County Republican who backs Luna, a veteran Capitol Hill staffer who was a longtime aide to Rep. Robert Bauman.
Bauman had continued what was once an unshakable GOP hold on the district, a diverse and still rural 13-county area that includes all of the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland, as well as part of Harford County north of Baltimore. Dyson defeated Bauman in 1980 after Bauman was charged with soliciting sex from a minor, charges that were dropped when he agreed to enter a rehabilitation program.
Dyson's incumbency seemed ironclad until reports surfaced of unusual recruiting tactics and demands placed on his office aides by Tom Pappas, who was Dyson's political mentor and chief of staff. After a Washington Post article on the operation of Dyson's office, Pappas leaped to his death from a New York hotel room.
Further stories detailed Dyson's ties to defense contractors and consultants, including several named in a federal investigation of Pentagon contracting. Dyson was never charged or named as a target of the probe, but he eventually returned about $20,000 in campaign contributions to consultants who had admitted to influence peddling.
His campaign was also fined by the Federal Elections Commission after it was learned that Pappas had funneled campaign funds into his own pocket.
When the polls closed on Nov. 8, 1988, Gilchrest had come within 1,600 votes of ousting the incumbent. Dyson, who recently paid off bills from that half-million-dollar race, now faces three challengers in the Democratic primary, including state Del. Barbara Osborn Kreamer (D-Harford). This year, the GOP is planning confidently for the knockout punch.
"There is a real feeling out there that they want a congressman they can trust, a congressman they can have faith in. And Dyson does not fit that bill," said Gary Koops, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "There is a potential for any of them to beat Dyson."
A recent committee poll of 1st District voters showed both the opportunity for Republicans and the problems they may have in capitalizing on it. In head-to-head matchups with each of the eight Republicans, Dyson got less than 50 percent, according to GOP officials. A large percentage of the people polled were undecided.
The bad news for Republicans is that none of them has made much of a mark yet. Among Republicans polled, Gilchrest was favored by 14 percent, and the rest were below 10 percent. About two-thirds of the Republicans were undecided.
None of this seems particularly disheartening to the GOP candidates or Maryland Republican Party officials, who say it shows only that the race is wide open. Once the nominee is chosen Sept. 11, state GOP Chairman Joyce L. Terhes expects a united party and a flood of help from national Republican circles.
"I have no secret fears" about any of the candidates, Terhes said. "These gentlemen know that with that many in the race . . . it does not take a large percentage of the vote to win. Come Sept. 12, the party will be 100 percent behind whoever wins."
In fund-raising, Briscuso, a lawyer who is the youngest of the Republicans and the newest resident of the district, leads the GOP field with $126,000 in contributions since the start of the year.
The bulk of his funds have come from individuals outside the district, including Washington area developers and White House officials.
Over the same period, Dyson raised $122,000, but has far more in reserve than others in the race.
Whoever survives the GOP primary can expect a tough race. Although state Democratic Party Chairman Nathan Landow tried last year to recruit fellow Democrats to challenge Dyson, he and other party leaders say they will support whoever wins the primary.
The Democratic nominee is also likely to benefit from the fact that turnout in the district, which has voted Republican in the last five presidential elections, drops substantially when there is no presidential election to draw GOP voters to the polls.
Dyson has shown that he is capable of holding on to votes through adversity. Even at the height of his difficulties two years ago, he maintained most of his electoral base. He has been campaigning aggressively ever since.
Meanwhile, the eight Republicans are employing an array of campaign tactics as diverse as their backgrounds.
Weed, who finished far down the list in the poll by the National Republican Congressional Committee, says he has met 12,000 people during his "Shoe Leather 1990" walking tour of 1st District towns. Support from just a fraction could keep him in the contest, said Weed, a lawyer whose latest ploy has been to wave at motorists from the median of major highways during rush hour. A political scientist, he says he feels the tactic is working, especially since a professional clown stopped her car and gave him a lesson in waving and making eye contact.
The two elected officials in the GOP race -- Colburn, a state delegate from the Eastern Shore, and Frazer, a Calvert County commissioner -- are counting on their established campaign organizations. Briscuso and Luna are hoping that their knowledge gained in working in other campaigns pays off.
And Gilchrest, a schoolteacher who paints houses and does other odd jobs for extra money, has continued to be his unconventional self. At the Republican women's meeting in Worcester County, he used his two-minute opening address to tell a riddle. He has taken some liberal stands, supporting abortion rights, a tax increase to ease the deficit and a non-tidal wetlands law that is under fire on the Eastern Shore from developers and farmers. In partisan audiences, he encourages the faithful to forgo labels and ideology for open-mindedness.
While several of the opponents have signed a non-escalation treaty, pledging not to wage negative campaigns against one another, some sniping has begun. Gilchrest gets criticized as too liberal, Sullivan and Grace as late arrivals trying to capitalize on the chaos of a large field, and Weed and Briscuso as urban carpetbaggers new to a district with residents proud of their regionalism.
State Republican National Committeeman Richard Taylor said the level of competition is far from a bad sign. Instead, he said, it proves that 1st District Republicans are invigorated for the first time in a decade and are on the verge of reclaiming a seat in Congress that is rightfully theirs.