The first big fund-raiser of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's maybe-maybe not run for governor last week certainly had the feel of a big league event.

White-gloved waiters wandered among the hundred or so guests who paid $1,000 each, passing crab cakes, spring rolls and spinach tarts. A slimmed-down Duncan greeted guests at the door, all smiles and back patting. And why not? When the event was over, his campaign was about $250,000 richer.

That total, which Duncan aides say makes the event the largest nonfederal fund-raiser in Montgomery history, included cash from people who came to the party at the Pooks Hill Marriott in Bethesda and those who just sent checks--a tradition in a county where many big donors agree to give as long as they don't actually have to attend.

As Duncan begins a run for the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nomination (or reelection to his current job), projecting the appearance of a candidate who can win the state's top job is as important as the actual fund-raising haul. Hence the silver trays and top-shelf Scotch served at the open bar.

No one expects Duncan (D) to be able to compete with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the presumed front-runner in the race, in fund-raising. The Kennedy family name should take care of that. And he may not be able to match Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, another likely rival, in that department, either. Ruppersberger has strong ties to the Baltimore area business community and draws financial support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

All three candidates will file campaign finance reports next week. But those reports will not give a full financial picture of the race so far. Proceeds from a major Townsend fund-raiser will not appear because the event was to be held a day after the reporting period closed. Ruppersberger reportedly has about $1 million on hand while Duncan has about half that amount, aides say.

The Duncan event last week attracted the usual assortment of business executives, including a few from Baltimore, where Duncan is little known, and a cadre of state lobbyists. Bruce Bereano was at the big-ticket reception, even though the lobbyist recently represented tobacco vendors in a lawsuit against the county over a tobacco tax favored by Duncan. Also there were former state senator Larry Levitan and several developers who have supported Duncan in past campaigns.

The Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Clinton), gave Duncan a warm introduction. And Ruppersberger himself stayed the whole evening. The political fight comes later.

GOP Wanted to Keep Neall

The talk had been swirling for weeks that Sen. Robert Neall was switching from the GOP to the Democratic Party, and for weeks Republican leaders had been working hard to keep him.

Smart on budget matters, Neall was a lawmaker open to compromise the GOP leadership didn't want to lose. That was especially true for newly installed state Chairman Richard Bennett and Vice Chairman Michael Steele, who have been trying hard to prevent the party's conservative core from wielding too much influence.

So Bennett was especially disappointed when, traveling in Italy last week, he logged on to the Internet at a cyber-cafe and saw a news report that Neall was bolting. "I'm very disappointed," said Bennett, whose staff urged a reporter to call him in Europe. "But having said that, there's no great impact for the Maryland Republican Party."

He said he had hoped to have another conversation with Neall before his decision, in hopes of persuading him to stay in the party.

Steele said he also made a personal appeal. He said he had hoped Neall would give the new leaders more time as they tried to build relationships with the GOP's legislative leadership. "He's a fine legislator," Steele said. "It's unfortunate that some party activists feel he was not conservative enough."

Indeed, if Neall had a problem, it was with the grass-roots activists--who felt he was too cozy with the Democrats--not the party leadership. Bennett, Steele, Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden, of Howard County--all are moderates in the GOP.

In an interview, Neall himself had a hard time pointing to specific examples of why he felt "uncomfortable" in the GOP after 28 years as a Republican. The closest matter he could mention was his leadership of the filibuster on the Senate floor earlier this year to reduce Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1. The filibuster helped reduce the increase to 30 cents a pack, as well as new requirements to spend money on helping tobacco farmers switch crops and for smoking cessation programs.

"There were lots of folks who wanted to hold the floor and hold out for zero," he said. "I know there were people disappointed in me for taking 30 cents."

Some hard-line conservatives would rather lose a vote than compromise their beliefs, he said. But compromise is a necessary part of politics, Neall argued, and he has had more influence on policy as a result.

As for the efforts of Bennett and Steele to moderate the party's image, Neall said, "They're going to have to attract and retain and make welcome people who are more to the left of me, if they're going to be competitive in Maryland."

He acknowledged Bennett and Steele's efforts.

"People say, hang in there. I ask, for how much longer? I recognize those efforts. I made those efforts for 28 years. I'm now saying my efforts are terminated."