If Laurie Sears had any lingering doubts about running for office in Maryland, they evaporated when she stepped into the electric atmosphere of Madison Square Garden.
As Republican delegates roared their approval of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Monday night, Sears, 37, a Persian Gulf War Navy veteran from Annapolis, was swept up by the prospect of getting into politics.
"It's so inspirational," she said. "I sit here and think, 'This is what I want to do.' "
Her enthusiasm is good news for Maryland Republican leaders, who have turned the convention into a week-long recruiting party for the 2006 elections. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he views the delegation as a prime pool of potential candidates at a crucial moment in the party's history.
Before Ehrlich was elected in 2002, Republicans had not won statewide office in more than three decades. Ehrlich said the 2006 election "will tell us whether this was a short-term experiment or the foundation for a slow political realignment in Maryland."
The courtship of prospective candidates for state legislative races began well before the convention. But Maryland GOP Chairman John Kane said Tuesday that the high-energy environment in New York presents a rich opportunity to lean on the hesitant.
For some time, Sears has been considering whether to run. She is president of a company that operates a relaxation spa for weary travelers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and she has fretted about diverting attention from her work.
But in New York, she has been pulled aside repeatedly by Kane, who told her that the party would support her strongly if she ran in District 30, which is home to House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
Busch, an opponent of the governor's gambling initiative, is at or near the top of a list of state legislators whom Republicans have pegged for an aggressive challenge. Democrats control more than two-thirds of House and Senate seats. But Republicans believe as many as seven seats in the Senate alone could be in play, including several in Anne Arundel, Southern Maryland and Baltimore County.
Among the other convention delegates on Kane's wish list are David F. Hale, president of the Calvert County commissioners, who could challenge Del. Sue Kullen, a recent appointee to the House; and Thomas F. McKay, president of the St. Mary's County commissioners, who could run against Sen. Roy P. Dyson.
At this point, Busch has little to fear even if Sears mounts a strong campaign. To knock out Busch, who was the top vote-getter in a three-member district, the Republicans might need three strong candidates.
Still, such a recruiting drive "would have been unheard of 20 years ago," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).
"The lay of the land has changed completely," Miller said. "The partisanship has spilled over from Capitol Hill."
State Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett said Tuesday that he is well aware that with a Republican governor, he has to "be vigilant" in protecting legislative seats. But he believes that only a small number of seats will be competitive for Republicans, and he is confident that the party can fend off those challenges.
"I don't foresee any kind of erosion," Leggett said. "We will be very prepared."
Republican leaders are not predicting a legislative revolution, or even parity, at least in the near term. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) called the effort a "long-term campaign to change Maryland." In 2002, he predicted that building a strong statewide party would take 10 years. "We're ahead of schedule," he said.
Yet capturing even a handful of seats -- enough, for instance, to prevent Democrats from shutting down a filibuster in the Senate -- would take a strong slate of skilled campaigners, Ehrlich said.
Finding candidates who fit that description has long been a problem for the Republicans. Audrey E. Scott, a former Prince George's County Council member who now serves in the Ehrlich administration, said she used to struggle to persuade people to run.
"We just had no way, in the climate we were in, to convince people that they had an even chance of actually winning," Scott said.
Not only are Republicans outnumbered 2 to 1 among registered voters, but the succession of losses at the state level dated back more than a generation. The result was a defeatist pall over the party that left it without a farm team, Scott said.
With Ehrlich's election, all that changed.
"It was huge for us," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (Somerset), who is a delegate at the convention and engaged in the recruiting effort.
Some Democrats are skeptical about how much party support the Republican newcomers will receive at the end of the day. They say it's not easy to oust incumbent lawmakers who have been satisfying constituents' needs. And a strong candidate at the top of the 2006 Democratic ticket could force the Republicans to put their energy and cash into defending Ehrlich.
"If there's a strong challenge to Governor Ehrlich, and I believe there will be, then that's where they will be forced to devote their resources," Busch said.