Mayor Martin O'Malley, wife Catherine

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his wife, Catherine, today walk outside City Hall, where the couple denounced rumors of infidelity spread by an aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (Sun photo by Christopher T. Assaf / February 9, 2005)

Ninety-one weeks before the next election, this much is certain: The race for Maryland governor will be no dull affair.

Within days of stating he was "laying the foundation" for a State House run, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley moved aggressively to spike persistent rumors of marital infidelity and created sparks by likening President Bush's budget to the 9/11 attacks in impact on U.S. cities.

In the state capital, meanwhile, first-term Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - who had been cruising in the polls with an approval rating comfortably above 50 percent - hit a bumpy patch of his own.

In less than a week, the governor infuriated black lawmakers when he said the state's minority business program needed to end, paid $100,000 to a Democratic elected official to settle a wrongful-firing lawsuit and, now, has terminated a longtime political operative found posting on the Internet rumors about O'Malley's marriage.

Ehrlich deflected blame for the rumor incident onto terminated worker Joseph F. Steffen Jr. and said he would not apologize personally to O'Malley.

For political observers, the events foreshadow a bruising political contest between two presumed gubernatorial rivals, in which no allegation is too salacious to disseminate and no charge can be left unanswered.

"To paraphrase the immortal Bette Davis, fasten your seatbelts, it is going to be bumpy and bloody ride," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster.

Smith and other political observers said it is too soon to tell how badly developments of the past week have damaged O'Malley or Ehrlich - if at all.

"Who knows who is going to be in the primary?" Ehrlich said yesterday.

Pending fresh details in the case of Steffen, State House veterans said the latest revelations seemed to bolster the mayor and harm the governor.

"I think it's a big break for O'Malley," said Frank A. DeFilippo, a former aide to Gov. Marvin Mandel and a political commentator on WBAL radio.

By finally addressing the rumors about his marriage and seeing them pinned on an Ehrlich operative, "it gets it out of the way," DeFilippo said. "It clears it up. ... If he was going to get an Easter gift, this was it."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said O'Malley will benefit from an emotional outpouring because his family suffered through the rumors, which the mayor forcefully denied yesterday.

"It helps solve a major problem for the O'Malley team, and it is going to generate a huge sympathy vote for him," Miller said.

At the same time, Ehrlich faces continued questions about how much he knew about Steffen's activities at the three state agencies to which the governor dispatched him during the past two years.

"It undercuts Governor Ehrlich's principal asset, and that's his public persona as a 'nice guy,'" said Smith, the McDaniel professor. "Governors who appeal to an enhanced civility in Annapolis don't hire pseudo-Donald Segrettis to issue false and malicious Internet gossip."

For Ehrlich critics, the disclosures about Steffen reflect a pattern in the governor's administration. They say he has brought Capitol Hill-style politics to Annapolis.

"He learned at the feet of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, when they did what they did to John McCain in South Carolina and Max Cleland in Georgia," said Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.

John Kane, the normally loquacious chairman of the state Republican Party, did not want to talk about Steffen and his impact on Ehrlich yesterday. "It's not even on our radar screen," Kane said.

But other Republican supporters said the governor will suffer little because he promptly distanced himself from Steffen.

"It needs to play out, but at this point, I don't see damage," said Kevin Igoe, an independent GOP strategist.