By the time Democratic Del. Dan K. Morhaim concluded his sit-down meeting last week in the Annapolis transition office of Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., he was not only ready to cooperate with the new administration, but said he truly wants to see Ehrlich succeed.
"I'm a loyal Democrat, but we've had a wake-up call," said Morhaim, whose majority-Democrat Baltimore County district turned out heavily for Ehrlich. "I'm hoping the change at the top will invigorate our party to come up with new ideas."
It's been six weeks since Maryland Democrats lost their three-decade lock on the governorship and, by extension, the monopoly they once held on the state's political agenda.
While some longtime party leaders are looking to joust with Ehrlich over the state's fiscal priorities, many moderate Democrats are charting a course like Morhaim's. They are reaching right in hopes of hanging on to the loyalty of farmers, factory workers, Baltimore suburbanites and others who broke party ranks to back Ehrlich.
As they gear up for their first legislative session in decades without an ally in the governor's mansion, Democrats of all philosophical stripes agree they will need to work hard to prevent the party from splintering.
"Everyone knows these will be a difficult four years for us," said longtime Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's). "The message we need to be sending is, 'Let's work together.' "
One step in that direction, Miller said, was last week's decision to tap former Montgomery County Council president Isiah Leggett as state Democratic Party chairman. He described Leggett as someone who is "comfortable with the voter-rich Washington suburbs" but "will also reach out to blue-collar Democrats in Dundalk and Arbutus and Catonsville" in suburban Baltimore.
Leggett, who had a reputation as a skilled consensus-builder on the council, said his first challenge as the party's chairman will be to prevent panic.
"What we did wrong in the governor's race, we need to learn from that," Leggett said. "But we should not overreact and decide that all of a sudden we need to try and reprogram ourselves."
Democrats still outnumber Republicans on the Maryland voter rolls nearly two to one. In November's election, the party gained two congressional seats, so Democrats now occupy six of the eight House seats, along with both slots in the Senate. And the party still controls both chambers in the State House with overwhelming majorities.
But Leggett said he knows he has work to do to prevent Maryland from going the way of Texas and Virginia, states with long Democratic traditions that have seen a GOP surge in recent years.
Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening will close out his second term with an approval rating of 37 percent, according to a recent Washington Post poll, down 17 points from four years ago.
And, in what many Democrats took as a sobering sign for the party, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) lost his seat to a political newcomer, LeRoy E. Myers Jr. (R), largely on the basis of a liberal Democratic platform that turned off his district's more conservative rural voters.
"There are certainly concerns out there," said Taylor's successor as speaker, Del. Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). "If the Republicans start to capture the middle ground, than I think the Democrats are in trouble."
U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) agreed, saying that what's needed from party leaders is an adroit ability to move in two directions at once.
"I think the party needs to reach out and consolidate its base," Mikulski said.
So how can Democrats reach out to moderates without abandoning the party's longtime base of support -- the liberal and African American voters in the state's three largest jurisdictions?
One answer, Leggett said, is to aggressively pursue support within the minority communities of counties other than Prince George's and Montgomery and Baltimore.
Leggett, who chaired the party's coordinated campaign on behalf of all Democrats running statewide, said he has carefully studied the census numbers for Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties.
"There's a myth that blacks don't live in those jurisdictions also," he said. "Those are votes that could have made a big difference for us."
Democrat Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County state senator who unseated Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella in November, said such subtle shifts in strategy may make sense. But he does not believe that the message of the party needs to change.
"I don't see [Ehrlich's election] as a watershed event," Van Hollen said. "There's not a major realignment underway in Maryland."
In some respects that's true. In Van Hollen's part of the state, Republicans dropped from holding 11 legislative seats in Annapolis to just two.
But the shift at the top still matters most, said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), especially because for the first time, there is someone in the state's most-powerful political job working hard to elect other Republicans.
GOP activists have said they will target Democratic lawmakers from conservative parts of the state and appeal to them to switch parties or face a strong Republican challenge. And Ehrlich is courting moderate legislators who might vote with him on key issues.
"There's no way around it," Duncan said. "We're a two-party state now. And we'd better be ready to deal with that."
Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.