For decades, the unfortunate lives of Republican lawmakers in Annapolis resembled those of mushrooms -- they were confined to the dark and ignored.

But with the election of the first GOP governor in 36 years, the status of the minority party in the General Assembly has taken on fresh meaning and relevance. Suddenly, influential people are interested in Republican opinions. Lobbyists are knocking on their doors. On some important issues, such as the proposed legalization of slot machines, their votes could determine the outcome.

The swirl of change has left some GOP legislators dizzy at times, but, as a group, they're striving to adapt.

The 43-member Republican caucus in the House of Delegates has been meeting weekly since Election Day, partly to revel in its newfound stature and also to figure out how to handle tasks that it didn't have to worry about before.

Yesterday, for example, caucus members discussed their strategy on how to react when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) presents his State of the State address today.

In the past, the approach was simple: Republicans would reflexively criticize the Democratic governor -- if anyone bothered to ask what they thought. But now, the governor is one of their own, so they had to plan a different response.

"We're in a little bit of a different position than we've been in for the past umpteen years in that we've got a governor to defend," said Del. George C. Edwards (R-Garrett). "Now we've got to defend a lot of things instead of just battling stuff."

House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr. (R-Baltimore County) warned his colleagues that reporters would tempt them to say critical things about the governor in an attempt to embarrass the party.

"Obviously, the people in the news business are going to try to find news," he said. "And if they can't find any news, they'll try to generate some news. And they'll probably try to find some Republican members to see if they'll criticize the governor.

"They're going to look for that wedge every opportunity they get. Be prepared for them to pull something negative."

To drive the point home, caucus leaders distributed a three-page guide, titled "Media Relations 101." For some politicians, the advice may have seemed elementary, but the primer was geared toward Republican lawmakers accustomed to laboring in anonymity

According to the guide, Rule One in dealing with reporters: "Don't panic."

"Being interviewed is giving a performance," it reads. "Even the most articulate, witty and knowledgeable person can get the butterflies and lose it all together."

The guide offers forthright advice for dealing with scandal. "Any skeletons in your closet? You must honestly confront all your skeletons. Remember, it isn't a matter of if someone will find out and ask you about it, but when."

Scandals among Republican lawmakers have been few and far between over the years, mostly because they've played such an insignificant part in the history of Maryland politics. The last time the GOP controled the House of Delegates: the legislative session of 1918.

The last election gave Republicans some room for hope: They gained eight seats in the House, though they still trail the Democrats, 98 to 43.

As such, the Republicans' weekly caucus meetings have been well attended. About three dozen delegates gathered for yesterday's session in a remote fourth-floor conference room in the James House Office Building, along with 20 staff members and spectators.

Also in attendance were four top aides to the governor -- powerful people the likes of whom had seldom been seen in a GOP caucus gathering until this year.

Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's director of communications and strategic planning, briefed the legislators on the governor's State of the State address, and promised them an advance copy later in the day.

Redmer, who has served in the House for 12 years, later admitted that he's still getting used to the new access and influence.

"After the election, people kept asking me: 'What's it going to be like working with a Republican governor?' And I always said, 'Who the hell knows?' "