Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had yet to claim victory when Democrats gathered at the Indian Spring Country Club began congregating around Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Will you do it? they asked. Will you run for governor in 2006?

Duncan offered an inscrutable smile and went back to checking out local precinct returns. Although fellow Democrats across Maryland were reeling from having lost the governor's mansion for the first time in 36 years, Duncan was quietly exalting in a monumental victory.

When the votes were counted, the 47-year-old Duncan would emerge as a kingmaker with political muscle more akin to an old-style city boss than a suburban county executive.

"It was historic in that no elected official in recent Montgomery County history has played so large a role in so many races," said council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large).

Duncan won an unprecedented third term as the chief of the state's largest jurisdiction with 77 percent of the vote, his largest tally ever. He secured loyalty from Democrats at home and elsewhere by funneling more than $500,000 from his treasury into local and state races. He purged the County Council of enemies.

He gambled big by focusing his political capital on a plan to solve the region's traffic woes -- and won, electing a council majority who generally share his agenda. His reassuring presence during the sniper killings raised his profile statewide.

All that leaves Duncan as one of the early frontrunners in the race to take on Ehrlich four years from now, with many of the obstacles that forced Duncan to forgo this year's race swept from his path. Although his allies are already laying the groundwork for a 2006 run -- seven weeks before Ehrlich even takes the oath of office -- the county executive himself is lying low.

"It's too soon to decide," Duncan said during a recent interview in his Rockville office conference room. "Now is not the time for politics. Now is the time to get things done."

The story of Duncan's local triumph -- and how that has positioned him for a potential statewide run -- is rooted in a campaign plan hatched over the spring and summer at local diners by Duncan's chief political fixer Jerry Pasternak; his press guru David Weaver; and Silverman, his closest ally on the County Council. By late summer, Duncan had a multipronged strategy in place:

Shift the focus of debate from the need to slow growth to the need to build roads with a bold, $1 billion transportation plan; form an "End Gridlock" slate of like-minded candidates; work in concert with the business and development community to ensure those candidates had sufficient campaign funds and access to crucial polling data; and bring on national political consultants to hammer anyone who stood in the way.

The plan became the most professional and expensive council election ever waged in Montgomery County. In place of a council largely opposed to the most controversial element of his transportation plan -- building an intercounty connector to link Interstates 270 and 95 -- Duncan will now work with a comfortable majority who support it. "It was stunning," observed Stanton Gildenhorn, a longtime county Democratic activist.

Duncan's victory underscores the remarkable turnabout in his political fortunes from just two years ago.

In the fall of 2000, a number of Duncan's Democratic foes gathered at a secret meeting aimed at keeping him out of the governor's race by sewing up county support for the party's eventual nominee, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Over the coming months, a clear message was sent to those in attendance: Mess with Duncan at your own risk.

Duncan publicly rebuked one of the plotters, calling council member Michael L. Subin "by far the worst council president" he had ever worked with. The budget of another attendee, Sheriff Raymond M. Kight, was slashed. Duncan also left funding for the Olney Theatre out of his next budget proposal -- and it didn't escape notice that the theater's board president, Gene Counihan, had hosted the meeting.

A fourth attendee, State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, accused Duncan of political retribution after county officials made public potentially embarrassing missteps by the prosecutor, such as an angry letter he wrote on official letterhead demanding a stop sign in his neighborhood.

Duncan said at the time that none of these moves was motivated by politics.

Despite the demonstration of Duncan's power at home, Townsend's grip on the state party apparatus was too strong to challenge. Faced with defections, a tense relationship with the council and lukewarm relationship with key Democratic constituencies such as labor and the NAACP, Duncan was forced to opt out of the governor's race in October 2001.

He immediately went to work to try to shore up the support that had eluded him, first by protecting his left flank from a serious primary challenge. In February, he and Silverman helped forge a compromise requiring some companies that do business with the county to pay their workers a "living wage" of $10.50 an hour. He also negotiated costly agreements with county employees that council budget analysts labeled fiscally irresponsible but that placated unions.

"Duncan has done a good job in making strong investments to keep the education community and the public employees happy, even if he hasn't been a cheerleader on every working family issue," said Tom Hucker, executive director of a labor-rooted nonprofit group called Progressive Maryland.

Duncan also won the favor of black community leaders by embracing a plan to elect more minorities to the General Assembly.

Some of the factors that made Townsend invincible in the Democratic primary now worked in Duncan's favor: His high standings in the polls coupled with his formidable campaign account led many former enemies to rush back into his fold.

By late spring, though, another potential trouble spot emerged. A poll done by business leaders showed that a slate of council candidates with a slow-growth message could prove popular with voters. Worse, the poll showed candidates such as Duncan and his allies who took sizable contributions from developers could be hurt by those donations.

Duncan's most outspoken critic on the council, fellow Democrat Blair G. Ewing, was preparing to mount just such a campaign. Duncan took a bold step in June, proposing tax increases for the first time in his tenure to pay for the most comprehensive transportation plan ever proposed by a local government official in the Washington region.

"The policy brilliance of the plan is that it will work to address traffic congestion," Pasternak said. "The political brilliance of it was that it made traffic congestion the defining issue as opposed to growth and development."

In July, Duncan formed his own slate (which included his former foe Subin). Under state campaign finance laws, that allowed him to pour huge sums of his own campaign money into an effort to take out Ewing in the County Council primary. The real estate and development community helped, too, forming a political action committee that paid for polls, consultants and campaign ads.

In the November election, the End Gridlock team targeted another incumbent who was at odds with its pro-road and development goals: Republican Nancy Dacek (R-Upcounty). Like Ewing, she lost after a withering negative mail and telephone campaign that centered on her opposition to the intercounty connector. All told, the End Gridlock team elected five candidates to the nine-member council.

The connector road was popular in the polls, said one key strategist, but it was merely a vehicle to elect a council with a larger agenda: "This wasn't just about the ICC -- it's about land use" and promoting sensible development, he said.

Duncan is careful to play down his role, mindful that Montgomery County voters aren't keen on political bosses. He stressed that the newly elected council is not his rubber stamp, but acknowledged that the improved relationship with council members will help: "I'm not going to have to waste time and energy trying to browbeat the council anymore."

And that will free him up to consider a statewide run without worrying about his back.

"The question in my opinion is not if he will run, but when he will announce that decision," said Isiah Leggett, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party and a retiring Montgomery council member. "It's clear that he has developed a legacy of achievement that he believes deserves statewide consideration."

Still, some hurdles remain.

First, there is geography. Although Montgomery County casts more votes than any other jurisdiction in Maryland, it is widely viewed as a wealthy enclave, and none of its politicians has ever been elected governor.

Duncan also must make good on promises to build roads and deal with a looming budget gap. Finally, there is the other early contender for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the subject of a fawning article in the current issue of Esquire. O'Malley also mulled entering the governor's race this year until, like Duncan, he bowed out.

O'Malley, 39, is saying little about his plans, declining to be interviewed for this article. As for Duncan, he was so concerned about appearing presumptive that his parting words during an interview were "You're not going to write that I'm running, are you?"

There are, however, signs that a 2006 run is in the works.

Duncan's allies are maneuvering to keep lobbyist Terry Lierman from becoming chairman of the state Democratic Party, according to several sources, worried that Lierman still bears a grudge over Duncan's failure to wholeheartedly support Lierman's unsuccessful 2000 congressional bid. And on election night, Duncan took a veiled shot at O'Malley's well-publicized reluctance to stump for Townsend. "Democrats in the rest of the state were sitting on their hands," Duncan told the crowd. "They weren't helping out. Shame on them."

As Democrats regroup, Duncan and O'Malley could embody the struggle to define the party's message as well as the ongoing regional power battle between the Washington and Baltimore suburbs.

National Democratic consultants are split over the two men's chances. Several believe the handsome O'Malley whose rock-and-roll band gives him a youthful star power, would make the better candidate, because of his popularity in the Baltimore suburbs that comprise Ehrlich's base and his populist appeal.

"If O'Malley is a rock star, then Duncan is a lounge singer," said Harrison Hickman, a pollster for vice president Al Gore's 2000 campaign who this year surveyed Maryland for Townsend and other Democrats.

But Mark Gersh, a consultant who helped redraw congressional districts, believes that, depending on their message, both men could appeal to the key swing voters who live between the Washington and Baltimore suburbs. "Exurban" voters proved key to Ehrlich's victory, as they have elsewhere for Republicans.

O'Malley is positioning himself to the left, calling on Democrats shortly after the election to "articulate a more progressive view" and let the GOP be the party of tax cuts and less government. But first he must win reelection in 2003.

Duncan, meanwhile, said the party has hurt itself by tailoring its message to the liberal "Big Three" jurisdictions: Prince George's and Montgomery counties and Baltimore. The next Democratic candidate needs to appeal to voters in the fast-growing, middle-Maryland communities, he said.

"The numbers are changing and you need a progressive centrist who can carry that message in parts of the state where they have not been as receptive to Democrats," Duncan said. And in what sounded like the beginning of a statewide stump speech, he added: "I've always tried to preach the politics of hope. We have to offer voters confidence in our ability to do the job and hope in their future, and I think we got away from that."

Montgomery's Douglas M. Duncan, left, with his counterpart in Prince George's, Wayne K. Curry, at a recent gala for Curry. Term limits barred Curry from reelection, while Duncan handily won a third term.Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who took a pass on running for governor this year, says "it's too soon to decide" about 2006.