It started as a rumor, but the tale of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's supposed marital infidelity, unproven and denied by the mayor, has become much more.
It is now a tool in the race for governor, with risks and rewards for the politicians who wield it.
Last winter, an aide to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was fired for participating in an Internet discussion about the rumor and O'Malley -- who is expected to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006.
The governor's good-guy image, some political experts said yesterday, could be tarnished because of his association with Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the aide who worked for him for decades.
"O'Malley is benefiting by having the ability to paint Ehrlich with the brush of right-wing dirty political extremists," Donn Worgs, a professor of political science at Towson University, said yesterday. "It might have some traction, because there is evidence that at least one person is linked to Ehrlich."
But the governor has suggested that Steffen was set up by Democrats.
If it turns out that Democratic operatives or O'Malley loyalists plotted to ensnare Steffen or leak the story themselves, the political saga gets more complicated. Ehrlich could portray himself as a victim, heightening pressure on O'Malley and Democrats to detail their role in the drama.
O'Malley and his allies might have been looking for a way to address the rumblings of unfaithfulness, said Carol Hirschburg, a Republican political consultant.
"I don't think he ever could pursue higher office without addressing the rumors. They were so pervasive," Hirschburg said.
Hirschburg said that media pressure had not been intense enough in the past to give the mayor a ready opportunity to speak about the allegations.
"If he were really concerned about the effect on his family, he would have confronted them years ago," she said.
This much is certain: The rumor is not going away any time soon.
It burst into view again yesterday, when WBAL Radio resurrected a five-year-old Washington Post story in which Katie Curran O'Malley, the mayor's wife, raised the topic during an interview.
Analysts for the radio station, who are regular critics of The Post and other newspapers, said the March 2000 reference undermines a perception that Steffen was the driving force behind the rumors.
But no news organization ever said Steffen started the rumor. He exchanged comments on the Web site www.freerepublic.com, however, saying, "A few folks put in a lot of effort to ensure the story got some real float."
Steffen was one of several aides to Ehrlich when he was a congressman who were given jobs in state government. Critics say they formed a team that operated outside the normal chain of command, identifying disloyal workers to fire.
O'Malley responded angrily yesterday to the radio report, accusing Ehrlich or his allies of digging up more dirt on him. Ehrlich aides, he said, dug through e-mail in a state agency where Katie O'Malley's brother works to find a five-year-old reference to his sister's frustration with the mayor's long hours.
"I'm calling on the governor to end this cowardly abuse of power," the mayor said. "I'm calling upon the governor to fire the remaining members of his taxpayer-financed dirty tricks team."
Ehrlich may be trying to deflect the effect of the Steffen story, said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster.
"Ehrlich is trying to establish collective responsibility," Smith said. He wants to create a perception, the professor said, that "when everybody is guilty, nobody is guilty."
But he said: "An Ehrlich aide had to resign." "That's the measure of political effectiveness of the issue. It's still an Ehrlich loss."
The governor said yesterday that he would not respond to the mayor's "whining" and "pointing of fingers."
Hirschburg said the mayor "is operating on the theory that a good offense is the best defense."
"The governor obviously had nothing to do with a Washington Post story that was in the paper five years ago," she said. "He's obviously trying to undermine Ehrlich's image as a nice guy, and he is trying to deflect attention from himself."
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, fears a broader strategy is afoot.
"What people are obviously trying to do is tie the O'Malley story in with Kweisi Mfume," Miller said, referring to the Senate candidate who is fighting allegations that he helped foster a hostile workplace at the national offices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People because of favorable treatment given to women with whom he or his son had relationships.
Miller said that Ehlrich is "trying to distance himself from Joe Steffen" but that the General Assembly will keep the links prominent when it investigates in the fall how Steffen and other Ehrlich aides were dispatched to several state agencies, identifying low-level nonpolitical employees to be fired and replaced with GOP loyalists.
Ehrlich has said that the turnover that occurred after he took office was normal and warranted and that he has replaced only policy-making personnel with those who adhere to his governing philosophy.
Still, Ehrlich "recognizes it is going to continue to be a story," Miller said. "The people who helped keep the [rumor] story alive are the same people who assisted in firing bona fide state employees."