If Republican dreams of political parity in Maryland are ever to become reality, the party will need converts like Cal Steuart. Lots of them.
For much of his life, Steuart, 66, voted for Democrats, as did everyone on the family farm in Baltimore County where he grew up. But two years ago Steuart, the owner of a Dunkirk title company, chose the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He has no doubt how he will vote in the presidential election Nov. 2.
"My basic values have changed away from the liberal idea that the government can do best for you," said Steuart, who cringes at the mention of Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry. "It was good to be able to vote for a Republican in Maryland and have him win."
The election will provide the first real indication of whether Ehrlich's victory was a watershed in Maryland politics, propelling the state toward a long-term "realignment," as Republican leaders like to call it -- or whether, as many leading Democrats argue, it was a fluke in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1.
If Ehrlich's win was to be the harbinger of change in Maryland, there is limited evidence for Republicans to cite -- short of anecdotes such as Steuart's conversion.
Since the last presidential election, in which Al Gore carried the state by 17 percentage points, the percentage of registered Republicans in Maryland has dropped slightly, to less than 30 percent.
Party registration does not always foretell what voters will do. Steuart, for example, is a registered Democrat. But the percentage of registered Republicans has changed little in Maryland since 1992, when it was 29 percent.
For Democrats, that isn't necessarily good news. As of August, the party's share of voters in the state also had dropped slightly from four years ago, to 55.5 percent, continuing a decades-long erosion.
The real development in the past four years has been among unaffiliated and minor-party voters, who now make up nearly 15 percent of voters in Maryland.
The growing ranks of the unaffiliated may make Maryland politics more volatile, but there is no fundamental realignment taking place, argued John T. Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state and a Democrat.
"They've taken the one election and tried to make a mountain out of an aberration," Willis said. "If it did exist, we'd be a battleground state" in the presidential race.
Neither campaign has treated Maryland as such. Ehrlich publicly advised President Bush in an August radio interview to campaign elsewhere, saying he "needs to be in the states he can potentially win."
Polls have shown the Democratic ticket as having a comfortable lead in the state, which has 10 electoral votes.
Neither campaign has bought much advertising, and the only major-party candidate to make an appearance in recent months is Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
Meeting Marylanders was only part of the mission. His public appearance this month at Anne Arundel Community College was followed by a $15,000-a-plate dinner that reportedly raised more than $1 million for a Democratic National Committee account.
John M. Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, has stopped short of predicting a Bush upset in the state.
"If [Bush] is very competitive, that's a step in the right direction," Kane said. "Everything should be a process. If it's a process, it's more enduring and lasting in value."
Kane said he considers political realignment of the state a gradual process. It will be important to get Ehrlich reelected in 2006, he said, and also to increase the number of Republicans in the state House, where they have 43 of 141 seats, and the state Senate, where they have 14 of 47 seats.
Doing so will help Ehrlich promote his agenda, which, if successful, increases the chances that Republican successor will be elected, Kane said.
Measures such as cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, expanding charter schools and aiding faith-based initiatives should appeal to more than just Republican voters, he said.
"Once you get those things in place and let them do their work, people will say, 'Hey, Ehrlich was right.' "
Republicans acknowledge several barriers in their pursuit. Maryland has the largest black population of any state outside the Deep South -- 28 percent -- and a majority of black voters identify with the Democratic Party.
The state also is -- and will remain -- home to a sizable number of federal workers, also a historically Democratic voter bloc.
Kane said the party is trying to reach out to Hispanic and Asian voters, two small but growing segments of the population.
The party has also made inroads, he said, in several counties where residential construction is booming -- Carroll, Caroline, Cecil and Calvert among them -- and more conservative residents are moving in.
In Calvert, where Steuart lives, Democrats enjoyed a slim advantage in registration in 2000. As of August, Republicans outnumbered them, 19,629 to 19,516.
Steuart said he is open to supporting conservative Democrats and will continue to vote for his congressman, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.
But he has come to think that Republicans better represent his views on issues important to him, including the development of sensible business regulations and practical environmental policy.
He said he supports Bush on Iraq and considers Kerry "a New England, silver-spoon-in-the-mouth liberal that deliberately denigrated the United States soldier and military to launch his own political career."
Steuart said his wife has become more conservative than he has, and at least one of his three children, who all live in Maryland, also is quite conservative. He said he is uncertain of the political leanings of the other two.
Though Ehrlich's 2002 victory showed that many other Democrats were willing to consider Republican candidates, turnout at Edwards's Maryland appearance also underscored how dedicated some members of the party's base remain.
Most of the 1,000 people who turned out at Anne Arundel Community College waited more than three hours for Edwards.
"I've been a Democrat all my life, and this is my first chance to see a candidate," Jeanne Harge, a retired schoolteacher from Galesville, said as rock music blared over loudspeakers before Edwards's arrival.
Harge, like many in the audience, said Bush's presidency -- particularly his decision to go to war in Iraq -- reaffirmed his faith in the Democratic Party.
One Republican in the crowd, Sandy Marshall, an Anne Arundel County nurse, said the war was a big reason she planned to vote for Kerry.
Marshall said she has an 18-year-old son.
"I don't want him to go to war for this," she said. "After what we've been through, I want to see all Democrats elected."
Despite the slight drop statewide, Democrats have seen gains in two of the state's most populous counties, Montgomery and Prince George's.
That may reflect the only real "realignment" taking place, said Willis, the former secretary of state: Big Democratic counties are becoming more Democratic while several more rural counties are becoming more Republican.
"There's stuff changing within the state, but not the state as a whole," Willis said.
Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, was also dismissive of Republican talk of realignment.
He predicted that if Ehrlich loses his reelection bid in 2006, Republican efforts to grow will lose direction and "implode."
"The pressure is really on the Republicans," White said.