For the first time in more than three decades, Maryland Republicans have emerged from an election cycle with a party leader: Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The state's new governor is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Maryland GOP.

But who is the champion of the Maryland Democratic Party? Oddly enough, none of the four Democratic statewide elected officials -- Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski; Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. -- seems to be a contender. Instead, it looks as though the title bout will be fought from now until the end of the General Assembly session between two guys named Mike, each representing just one-forty-seventh of Maryland's populace.

Standing for the 98-member Democratic Caucus in the House of Delegates is Michael Busch of Anne Arundel County, the combative new speaker who was quick to carve out a niche as the leading opponent of the governor's signature issue -- slot machines at racetracks.

In the near corner is veteran Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of Calvert and Prince George's counties, Maryland's longest-serving Senate president and a longtime proponent of slots. Miller, a skilled political player with unassailable control over the upper house, is a familiar presence in the statehouse. Busch was elevated to the speakership mere weeks ago after the unexpected defeat of Allegany County's Casper Taylor, who had held the position since 1994. Busch frequently refers to Taylor as his mentor, but his leadership style could hardly be more different.

Busch began his reign with a shakeup, not only of the Democratic leadership and the House committee structure but also of the very building in which the 141 members of the House work. So wholesale was the office-switching he ordered that one week after the start of the session, some delegates still were without computers or even a place to hang their hats.

But mainly Busch has been working overtime to convince his fellow Democrats that he and the new governor really aren't friends, even though they prowled Annapolis together as bachelors in their freshman session and in subsequent years have vacationed together with their families.

Setting himself up as a Democrat's Democrat, Busch purged his leadership team of rural conservatives and refused to introduce the Republican administration's legislative package in the House. By the end of January, the Democratic caucus was assured that its speaker wouldn't be in the governor's pocket. By the end of February, Busch seems to have convinced Ehrlich of that too.

Busch has a lot going for him in his drive for supremacy among Maryland Democrats. He is affable and well-liked, and his position on slots has made him the darling of the editorial pages of the Baltimore Sun and The Post. But his stand on slots places him in opposition not only to Ehrlich but to several of his own committee chairmen.

And it puts him in conflict with the Senate president, who has been playing a leading role in the slots drama, vying with the governor's communications staff as lead apologist for the administration's tardy production of workable slots legislation and even sitting with Ehrlich at the committee hearing on the then-nonexistent bill. Miller, unlike Busch, has total command of his leadership team and, therefore, of the Senate.

Now the rivalry between Miller and Busch is spilling into the open. While dozens of column inches were devoted to the dust-up between Ehrlich and Busch about the speaker's alleged playing of "the race card" in the slots debate, Busch and Miller were doing a little sparring of their own.

When Busch recently called for a referendum on slots, Miller said that wasn't leadership, but "followership." When asked for a comment, Busch told the reporters that Miller's "leadership style leaves a lot to be desired." Statehouse insiders report that, politics aside, Miller and Busch dislike one another.

No one knows which Mike will come out on top when the legislature adjourns, but it promises to be a heck of a fight.