Even as House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. awaits the final vote count in his tight Western Maryland delegate race, the leading contenders to replace him as the House of Delegates' leader are angling to secure the post.

Dels. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, and Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, make it clear that they hope election officials will declare Taylor the winner when absentee ballots are counted today. But if Taylor is defeated, Busch and Rawlings said, each wants to take the reins in the House as Democrats in both chambers of the General Assembly move to replace leaders lost this year to election upsets and retirement.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is working to bring stability to his chamber with an announcement today of his new leadership team. The number of top committee chairmen he must replace increased to four after Sen. Walter M. Baker, an Eastern Shore Democrat, was defeated in a bitter campaign with Republican E.J. Pipkin, a former Wall Street bond trader.

Although Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will occupy the state's top job, Democrats will retain control of both chambers of the legislature. The leadership in the House and Senate will play critical roles in determining whether the needs of the state are met and do not fall victim to partisan or regional politics. "My job is going to be not to allow the state to be divided," Miller said.

The leadership of the House remains unsettled after Taylor, one of the state's top Democrats, lost the District 1C delegate race by 139 votes Tuesday. Taylor and Republican challenger LeRoy E. Myers Jr. are awaiting a count of up to 500 absentee ballots.

Taylor supporters said they did not expect the absentee ballots to change the outcome.

"I think we're being realistic in saying that we're not optimistic," said Becky McClaren, Taylor's campaign manager. "Certainly, we did not expect this. We'll be feeling the effects of this in Western Maryland for quite some time."

Taylor did not return phone calls yesterday.

Few expected Taylor to lose to Myers, a political newcomer and owner of a family contracting business in Washington County.

"The only dominant theme in this election was change," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, whose almost 20 years in the Senate are ending after her defeat in September's primary. "How else do you explain Western Maryland not supporting Cas Taylor? He put Western Maryland on the map."

Leading Republicans say Ehrlich is considering Taylor for a possible appointment in his administration.

Busch, a delegate since 1987 and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, has been the longtime favorite to succeed Taylor and in the past polled delegates to see if he had the support to become speaker.

If Taylor loses his election, Busch said, "I would say I'm probably the odds-on favorite to be his successor. I'm cheering for Cas. He certainly deserves the opportunity to come back. I hope it works out for him. He's been a great speaker of the House.

"At the same time, you have to be prepared."

Busch says he has the support of most of the leading Democrats, naming House Majority Leader Maggie L. McIntosh of Baltimore and Montgomery County Dels. Sheila E. Hixson and John Adams Hurson - all of whom have been viewed as potential candidates for speaker.

Rawlings, who has served in the House since 1979 and is the powerful chairman of the appropriations committee, said he believes he should replace Taylor because he has more tenure in the legislature than Busch.

"Mike Busch is my junior in terms of service," Rawlings said. "I am the most effective in terms of seniority, in terms of perceived effectiveness."

With the possible loss of the House speaker, the extensive turnover in the legislature and the election of a Republican governor for the first time in more than 30 years, Miller said he wanted to move quickly in making leadership appointments to steady the Senate and begin tackling such issues as the looming $1.7 billion budget deficit.

The House gained 40 new members, while the Senate added 11, for a total turnover of about 30 percent of the 188-member legislature.

Miller said he will look to strike the delicate balance between the needs and interests of all of the state's 24 jurisdictions.

It is widely expected that Miller will appoint Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger of Baltimore County, Sen. Ulysses Currie of Prince George's County and Sen. Thomas M. Middleton of Charles County to the four top chairmanships. Baltimore Sens. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Joan Carter Conway are among those under consideration for other leadership posts.

Miller is seeking to replace his four top committee chairmen, who were among his most loyal allies.

In addition to Baker and Hoffman, Miller has lost Majority Leader Sen. Clarence W. Blount of Baltimore and Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell of Baltimore County to retirement this year.

Miller is likely to be re-elected as Senate president when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, political observers say. Middleton, his leading potential challenger, said he would not oppose Miller.

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the only "sure thing" is that Miller will again be the Senate's president - something he said is needed because of the extraordinary changes in the chamber. "To have this amount of leadership change ... is unprecedented," Hogan said.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.