ANNAPOLIS -- The Maryland General Assembly that convened yesterday has a distinctly different profile, including among its members more women, minorities and Republicans than the previous body of lawmakers.

It remains an open question whether the demographic and political changes that voters embraced last fall will radically distinguish this General Assembly from the one that presided in the State House for the last four years.

However, leaders of the groups that made incremental gains in the legislature are betting that the altered chemistry will have visible effects as the General Assembly confronts issues such as abortion, taxes, growth, health care and the environment.

The net effect, they predict, will be a legislature more sensitive to women's issues and social concerns as well as more fiscally conservative during the economic downturn.

"The legislature has opened itself up to the changing times," said Del. Henry R. Hergenroeder Jr. (D-Baltimore), a six-term legislator who closely tracks the makeup of the General Assembly.

Sen. Mary Boergers (D-Montgomery), president of Women Legislators of Maryland, noted that the fall elections increased the number of women in the 47-member Senate from eight to nine and in the 141-member House of Delegates from 34 to 35.

"A couple here and a couple there does make a difference," Boergers said. "No delegation is bigger, so when the number begins to be that large, it becomes a force to be reckoned with."

Of equal importance, Boergers said, will be the rise of women into significant leadership positions, particularly the elevation of Del. Nancy K. Kopp (D-Montgomery) to the position of speaker pro tem, the nominal second-ranking post in the House.

Boergers was quick to note, however, that the women's caucus is hardly monolithic. It declined last year, for example, to take a position on abortion-rights legislation.

"Just because we happen to wear skirts, we are not always going to have the same views," she said. "That's a strength, but it's also a complication."

Del. Sylvania W. Woods Jr. (D-Prince George's), the first black chairman of the county's House delegation, said it is noteworthy that blacks gained two seats in the elections and now number 25 in the House and seven in the Senate.

"I think that blacks elected to the legislature tend to be more sensitive when it comes to concerns of blacks throughout the state and more supportive of social programs," Woods said.

"Every additional black legislator is important to the makeup and the outcome of legislation. That's why I'm so proud that Maryland has the second largest membership of blacks in any state legislature, behind Georgia."

Republicans recorded even more dramatic gains in last year's elections, increasing their representation from 16 to 25 in the House and from seven to nine in the Senate.

In a General Assembly long dominated by Democrats, pure partisanship has been almost nonexistent.

Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery) said: "We've gone from a one-party state to a one and a half-party state. That's always a shock to the party in control."

Yet, Denis said he doesn't foresee the kind of partisanship evident in other state legislatures or Congress becoming the norm in Maryland.

"The House minority members have a more confrontational approach than the Senate," Denis said. "But in state and local government, partisanship doesn't play as much a part as geography and philosophy.

Hergenroeder looks at the new General Assembly and sees other vast differences from his first session here 24 years ago, when a largely male group dominated by lawyers and businessmen held sway. Besides having more women and minorities, the legislature today has more public employees as members and about 50 members identify themselves as full-time legislators, without other occupations. Legislators receive an annual salary of $27,000.

"It used to be a male-dominated environment," Hergenroeder said. "It's far more representative of our entire population, a better blend today."