Like the great white shark, which can smell a single drop of blood in 25 gallons of water, gambling companies and their representatives have caught the scent of money in Maryland -- hundreds of millions of dollars in potential profits from slot machines.

And like the great whites, which don't chew their food but rip off great chunks of meat to swallow whole, for two years gambling interests in Annapolis have gobbled down time that the state legislature could have spent on more urgent matters. Yet once things didn't exactly go their way, these gambling interests showed just how aggressive and hostile they could become, even with one another.

When great white sharks hatch from eggs inside their mothers' wombs, they attack their siblings and try to kill them to increase their own chances of survival. Gambling interests exhibited similar behavior a few weeks ago when word of yet another slots deal was leaked. Before the latest scheme could be birthed, former gambling allies turned on one another.

Those who found themselves left out of the bill and who couldn't pry or claw their way back in sent word to their lobbyists to work to kill the bill.

Those whose interests did make it into the bill saw a chance to eliminate their temporarily helpless allies and went to work to secure quick approval for the bill.

Not surprisingly, the whole scheme collapsed in an ugly display of recrimination. But with so much windfall profit at stake, the former allies turned enemies soon teamed up again to make one last-ditch proposal.

Their "compromise" was a Nov. 2 referendum on 21,000 slot machines at eight locations instead of the 15,500 at six locations that the state Senate had approved. That way all the sharks could feed. Unfortunately for them, nobody bit on this line.

Out of the chaos, though, came clarity. "Slots for Tots," the absurd and insincere slogan that gambling partisans so often repeated in the campaign of 2002, is no longer their mantra. It's been shoved aside by the sharp elbows of cash and influence. Slots politics now is about moving in to attack.

For example, less than 48 hours after the failure of the latest attempt to push through a slots bill, the minority whip of the House, Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), promised to serve up all 43 Republican delegates like chum to any Democrat who was willing to try to topple House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). Why? Because Busch wouldn't agree to satisfy the gambling interests.

Last month Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) played his own brand of attack politics. He said that his Democratic Party would have to shoulder most of the blame for budget cuts next year because of its refusal to pass a slots bill. That comment was intended to tear off a chunk of the speaker's hide.

Gambling interests have demonstrated that they will fund just such a combative strategy for as long as it takes. The political predators -- the lobbyists and the media consultants -- will continue to circle Busch, hoping to find his weak spot. They believe a fatal attack on Busch finally will open the path to slots, money and power.

Many observers of the action in Annapolis call the attempt to legalize slots a race to the bottom, but they're mistaken. There is no bottom. Only a slow and sure descent into the depths where sharks smell blood.

Michele.Dyson@cisglobal.com