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Ehrlich, O'Malley duke it out in ads

Even in the mashed-up world of TV these days, it is a little jarring in the middle of a Baltimore Ravens game or "Late Night With David Letterman" to suddenly see the screen fill with images of Martin O'Malley and Bob Ehrlich talking about a 72 percent energy rate hike that they were fighting about in 2006, during the last governor's campaign.

In fact, when their ads run back to back during a commercial break, it is almost surreal — as if their video images are locked in a TV time warp, a kind of candidates' (and viewers') hell that will have them arguing about BGE through eternity on the small screen.

If it seems as if the arch rivals for governor have been everywhere on TV in recent weeks, station executives and campaign managers have news for you: Even more ads are on the way as Maryland heads down the homestretch to the Nov. 2 primary. Two months ago, some local station managers predicted in these pages that political ad spending in Baltimore, led by gubernatorial campaign commercials, would set a new record, topping $17 million. With just over three weeks to go, they guarantee it.

"The volume of political and issue advertising is every bit as strong as we expected," says Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF and WNUV, the first local TV executive to make the call in August when he introduced an overnight newscast on Channel 54 in part to provide ad buyers with an extra venue in which to place their political commercials.

But as much as some might consider political ads an intrusion on their viewing pleasure, the commercials have offered one of the best windows into the visions, strategies, twists and turns of the two candidates and their campaigns. What started out in July with Ehrlich vowing to take the high road while denouncing his opponent's attack ads now finds Ehrlich going negative as well — with some serious help from the Republican Governors Association.

One of the only spin-free sources of information on the two TV campaigns is that of the Nielsen Co., which is tracking the Maryland governor's race closely. Its most recent report, which was issued late last week, covers the week of Sept. 27 to Oct. 3, and it shows how O'Malley has been outspending Ehrlich and winning the war of the airwaves in terms of volume.

"In the rematch of the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, Democratic incumbent Martin O'Malley continues to outpace Republican Bob Ehrlich in the advertising race," the Nielsen report says. "Overall, Governor O'Malley ran almost 100 more ads than Ehrlich last week."

For the week, O'Malley ran 397 ads compared with 298 for Ehrlich. But the Ehrlich campaign ran all of its ads in the Baltimore market, while O'Malley ran 122 in Washington.

(It is far less expensive to advertise in Baltimore because it is the 26th-largest TV market in the country with 1.1 million TV homes, while Washington is the ninth-largest with 2.39 million. Also, Baltimore is a more efficient buy because it is virtually all Maryland, whereas with the Washington market, you are also paying to reach Virginia and District of Columbia viewers, who cannot vote for you. But to cover Montgomery and Prince George's counties, you have to buy Washington TV.)

While Ehrlich's Baltimore-only strategy was good news for the local TV economy, it was not a very effective use of TV when running for statewide office. And in fact, Ehrlich launched a TV ad campaign in Washington on Thursday after telling a Baltimore County audience earlier in the week that he believed the polls showing O'Malley ahead of him were in part the result of O'Malley's ad dominance in the Washington market — particularly with attack ads.

"Every argument deserves a response, and that's precisely what the Ehrlich campaign is doing now" in Washington, says Henry Fawell, director of communications for the Ehrlich campaign. "Baltimore and Washington are obviously different markets with different prices, but we deem this the appropriate time to be in Washington."

According to Nielsen, Ehrlich has some on-air catching-up to do. Another snapshot from the research firm's report shows how effectively O'Malley's campaign has used the airwaves of all 12 stations in the Baltimore and Washington markets to define the GOP challenger.

Under the heading "TV presence," which measures "total airtime — paid, free, positive or negative," the report notes that "Ehrlich consistently led O'Malley." But it then goes on to explain that Ehrlich's "bigger lead" is "largely due to the negative ads" by O'Malley.

Translation: Ehrlich's getting more mentions on Baltimore and Washington TV, but many of them are coming from O'Malley ads that depict Ehrlich negatively. That's not a good thing for the candidate.

"A hallmark of the O'Malley campaign advertising has been to talk very little about Martin O'Malley and to try to change the subject to Bob Ehrlich and some very liberal interpretations of his record," Fawell says. "I see the Nielsen finding as scientific validation of my point about their discomfort in talking about Martin O'Malley and his legacy."

O'Malley's TV campaign has followed what looks to be a carefully timed thrust-and-parry of negative and positive ads. It started out in July with an attack on Ehrlich as a lobbyist for special interests. But knowing Democrats everywhere are running against the bad economy more than they are against any one candidate, the O'Malley campaign moved off that attack salvo to emphasize jobs allegedly created by the governor. That was the second stage.

Then, in the third stage, the ads went back to a hard attack on what they depicted as credibility issues with Ehrlich, focusing on his saying he was not raising taxes even as he did increase fees. And now, the focus is on alleged differences between the two candidates, with a spotlight on education and claims that O'Malley has held the line on college tuition at state schools while Ehrlich raised it. The emphasis is on O'Malley allegedly paving the way for more young Marylanders to have a better life through higher education.

One of those ads includes a young man saying his mother is a "teacher" at the start of the ad, and then later, saying that he is the first "member of his family to go to college."

At least one radio host has portrayed that as a contradiction, but Rick Abbruzzese, O'Malley's deputy campaign manager, says that's not the case.

"That particular student," Abbruzzese says, emphasizing that it is a real student and not an actor, "his mom is a teaching assistant. She has an associate's degree, and he is the first person in his family to go to a four-year institution."

Ehrlich's more limited TV ad campaign started with two upbeat ads emphasizing the promise of a "plan" to get Maryland "back to work." But it quickly changed direction and is now on the same negative path Ehrlich has denounced O'Malley for taking. The theme: an alleged lack of credibility on the part of O'Malley, highlighted by a tagline: "Now he's just makin' stuff up."

Fawell explains the shift in part by saying that it is being done in response to O'Malley's negative ads about Ehrlich. But the campaign aide says his team also believes that "as a challenger, you have a responsibility to highlight what you believe is wrong," and that Ehrlich is meeting that responsibility in his criticism of O'Malley both on the stump and in TV ads.

The next big moment in the ad campaign is expected by some analysts to come from the Republican Governors Association on Ehrlich's behalf — and the betting money says its tone will be determined by how Ehrlich does in the polls in coming days and weeks. The RGA has already funded one attack ad featuring a photograph of O'Malley's face cut into jagged pieces.

Fawell says he can only speak for the Ehrlich campaign, and with the move into Washington last week, its TV advertising effort will only be stronger.

Speaking for the O'Malley campaign, Abbruzzese says his team has no intention of dialing down the governor's TV presence the next three weeks. He says the campaign's managers are pleased with the way the television effort is playing.

"The TV campaign mirrors the larger issues in the campaign," he says. "Which candidate has the credibility to move our state forward? Which candidate has a better record on important issues like public education and job creation in our state. Those are the things that our ads have tried to highlight — and will continue to do so."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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