Maryland's Republican Party, struggling to right itself after its drubbing in November's election, got a pep talk from across the Potomac last week when Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III spoke at the annual Red, White and Blue dinner.

The state GOP saw its first declines in the legislature in two decades, its most promising gubernatorial candidate defeated by 10 points and losses in several major counties. It was torn by internal debate last month over opening its presidential primary next year to independents in an attempt to boost interest in the party. (It voted closely to do it but only for the 2000 elections.)

Yet more than 400 people showed up for the dinner at Baltimore's Hyatt Hotel at the Inner Harbor, garnering the party $80,000.

"This was hands down the most successful dinner," state party Chairman Richard D. Bennett said.

Gilmore exhorted the Marylanders to open their party to new themes and ideas, to seek out new voters and be inclusive and to stay unified.

"We understand the importance of unifying," Gilmore said. "The simple truth is Republicans have more in common with Republicans than they ever will with the other party."

He spoke of his own efforts to reach out to organized labor, to talk about issues of child care and education, to remain tough on crime and to continue to beat the drum for lower taxes.

"The tide is with us," he said. "Voter by voter. Step by step. The people of Maryland are coming to this party."

During last year's gubernatorial campaign, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey lamented what she called a drain of jobs from Maryland to Virginia, where taxes are lower. And despite his cheerleading, Gilmore's appearance also prompted a bit of competitiveness.

He was seated next to chicken magnate Frank Perdue, which caused some Republicans to fret that the powerful Eastern Shore businessman might be getting an earful on the virtues of Virginia.

Bennett gave Gilmore a glossy book on Maryland's natural attractions at the dinner. "We'll share our natural bounties," he told the governor. "But we'll keep the jobs here."

Crazy to Get In

Most political fund-raisers are snoozers. In the summer, they might include a round of golf or a bull roast. Usually, the crowd is in suits, there are drinks, cheese and crackers and, if you're lucky, the food is edible. This is business, after all, not pleasure.

Then, there's Jamaica Me Crazy, the annual fund-raiser held by Senate Finance Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County). Ties are loosened, shoes are kicked off, shorts and T-shirts are welcomed. People actually want to come--even if it costs them $125 a head.

"It's the only fund-raiser I know that everyone wants to come to," said Del. John S. Arnick (D-Baltimore County), drink in hand, a jazz band wailing in the background. "Damon Runyon couldn't have a party like this." Though the way some of the guests were dressed, it looked like a modern-day "Guys and Dolls."

Bromwell's soiree, held last week at the Baltimore waterfront restaurant the Bay Cafe, attracted about 1,800 people by night's end, the senator's aide, John Schneider, said. Bromwell, who used to own a bar and restaurant, was the genial host. In Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt, he greeted his guests at the door and comped many of his pals from Dundalk, legislative staffers and others. But everybody who came was his "friend."

As he told Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D), who is wrapping up his last year in office, "The invitations won't end this year. You're my friend."

As finance chairman, Bromwell oversees legislation critical to a vast array of business interests--during the General Assembly session his committee oversaw deregulation of the utility industry--and he has his eye on becoming the next Senate president. So Bromwell's friends who can pay do; Schneider estimated the take from the bash to be at least $175,000--a large figure even for the chairman of an important legislative committee.

The crowd included Maryland's buttoned-down political establishment, but there was a raffish quality to the group, too. More ponytailed men, more diner-type stiffs, more real people than one finds at any other political fund-raiser.

"The other ones are--I don't want to say stuffy--but even the casual ones aren't like this," said Chip Silverman, vice president of government relations at Magellan Behavior Health and an author.

Conservative Republicans such as Sen. Richard Colburn (Dorchester) were there. So were many big-name Democrats such as Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "I've been hearing about this for years and had to see for myself," Duncan said.

Maryland's lobbying corps was out in full force. Said one, who did not want his name used for fear of offending legislators whose fund-raisers are boring in comparison: "This is the one fund-raiser I look forward to. If tickets would be limited for this event, people would be buying them in January."