Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend began airing the first television advertisement yesterday in which she mentions her opponent, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The ad -- the third major one in her campaign -- contrasts the candidates on education and will air in the Baltimore and Washington markets.

What the ad says: The spot begins with side-by-side pictures of Townsend and Ehrlich and says: "There is a real difference in education." With video of Townsend visiting a classroom, an announcer says Townsend "fought for record investment in our schools" and "has a plan to lower class sizes, emphasize basics like reading and math, and teach character education in every school."

The ad then switches to an image of Ehrlich's face as the announcer chronicles his congressional record, including that he "voted to cut the school lunch program and college loans." The announcer then says Ehrlich "voted against smaller class sizes and for the largest education cut in history -- and even voted to eliminate the Department of Education."

The facts: During Townsend's eight years as lieutenant governor, the state's annual spending on education increased by $1.2 billion, and Maryland spent a record amount on school construction.

She also supports the Thornton Commission education plan, which calls for an extra $1.3 billion for public schools within five years. But she did not play a large role in securing passage of the measure and she has not specified how she would pay for it. In her "Blueprint for Maryland's Future," she pledges to cut class sizes and require character education in schools.

For every charge made against Ehrlich's record, the ad cites specific legislation in text on the screen -- such as the attempt in 1995 to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education. At the time of that vote, House Republicans said they wanted to send the headquarters money to individual states.

Ehrlich says that many of the other votes were procedural and are taken out of context, including some that were part of the 1995 federal budget standoff and government shutdown. Ehrlich points to other measures he supported to increase school funding.

The Maryland State Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers have voted to endorse Townsend. They were key supporters of Gov. Parris N. Glendening in his two elections.

Analysis: The ad capitalizes on polls showing Maryland voters are most concerned about public education, suggesting that Ehrlich has a worse record of supporting schools.

"I do think voters care a lot about education, but I don't think he's especially vulnerable on it," said James G. Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Some of that legislation is purely symbolic, votes he may have taken to support the leadership. This is a common campaign tactic, to take votes completely out of context and play them up in ads."

The ad seems likely to be more effective in the Washington area because Ehrlich is less known there. One of the big battles of the campaign is the rush to define Ehrlich to the voter-rich Washington suburbs -- with Townsend trying to portray him as conservative as Ehrlich cultivates a moderate image.

-- Howard Libit