Maryland's Republican leaders met in Montgomery County yesterday for the first time in more than a decade and used the occasion to stress party unity at a time when the GOP is suffering from the defection of a prominent lawmaker and is troubled by internal dissension.

From the invocation through a full morning of speeches, Republican leaders said the party must unite and become willing to accommodate differing views if it hopes to regain its momentum in a state long dominated by Democrats.

"The road to victory is paved with unity," U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella told the 200 Republicans gathered for their fall convention at the Marriott Hotel in Bethesda. In an interview, she added: "When you're a minority party, you can ill afford to have dissension in the ranks. They need to have confidence in themselves, to know they can succeed."

Unity has long been a theme at the twice-a-year meetings of Maryland Republicans. But the need for it has been driven home in recent weeks by a series of controversies. Last month, Montgomery County Republicans squabbled over whether a Latina should fill a vacancy on the county Central Committee; she eventually lost to a white man. Then, state party leaders expressed displeasure this month over a decision by Carroll County Republicans to raffle a 9mm pistol as a party fund-raiser. On Nov. 12, state Sen. Robert R. Neall, a former Republican Anne Arundel county executive and influential budget expert in Annapolis, announced he was switching to the Democratic Party.

Maria Pena-Faustino, who lost a special election last month to Charles E. Brooks to fill a vacancy on the Montgomery Central Committee, offered the invocation yesterday. "We need to heal," she said, asking those assembled to hold hands.

The gun flap was not mentioned in the speeches but was the subject of hallway chatter, with some moderate Republicans shaking their heads over the party raffling a firearm at a time when gun violence is riveting the nation.

Neall, who said he no longer felt welcome in the GOP because he was willing to compromise with Democrats on some legislative issues, was dismissed by some as a turncoat. But party chairman Richard D. Bennett said, "We should not ignore that [Neall's departure] was not a good development." Still, he added, "The Republican Party of Maryland is stronger than any one political figure."

In Maryland, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. While demographic trends clearly favor the GOP and the party has been making strides, it suffered tremendous setbacks in elections last year, losing the gubernatorial race and four delegate seats from Montgomery County.

The party has spent the past year working to revitalize itself, increase fund-raising--with some success--and improve its recruiting of political candidates. The controversies of recent weeks have affected that, some GOP leaders said.

"It's causing some reevaluation, looking at the party and what we do," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan (Montgomery County), who was the target of Democratic overtures. "There's been introspection. Maybe we're not as conservative a party as the media characterizes us. But maybe we also could do more to show that more."

One way was to meet in Montgomery, which has embraced moderate Republicans such as Morella. Though the fall convention had been planned for Bethesda well before the latest flaps, it marked the first time this decade that the GOP has met in a county that is becoming increasingly crucial to its success.

"This county is a microcosm of the whole state. The upper part of the county is growing and becoming more conservative, and the whole state is becoming more conservative," said GOP national committeeman Dick Taylor.

"You can't do much about Baltimore or Prince George's County," which are longtime Democratic bastions, agreed House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County. "But you can in Montgomery County. It's the key to winning statewide elections."

Republicans also held a straw poll yesterday for president and vice president among those who had registered for the convention. Texas Gov. George W. Bush received 125 votes, Arizona Sen. John McCain received 33 votes and publisher Steve Forbes garnered 12.

For vice president, U.S. Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio received 41 votes, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, 35, and retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, 26.