In some of his harshest language yet, Mayor Martin O'Malley charged Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. with orchestrating a taxpayer-financed smear campaign against him and demanded the governor cease his "cowardly abuse of power."

The Republican governor denied the Democratic mayor's accusation that he is allowing state employees to continue to spread rumors about O'Malley's marriage and dismissed the mayor as a "whiner."

The vitriolic exchange between the two likely 2006 candidates for governor came on a day when a local radio station revisited five-year-old comments made by the mayor's wife acknowledging earlier rumors about their marriage.

"There's a big difference between public wonderings about a young couple thrust into the spotlight of being the city's first family, and a premeditated, orchestrated and relentless campaign run by dirty trick operatives close to the governor funded on state taxpayer dollars," O'Malley said during a City Hall news conference yesterday.

"I'm calling upon the governor to end this cowardly abuse of power," the mayor continued. "I'm calling upon the governor to fire the remaining members of his taxpayer-financed dirty tricks team. And I'm calling on the governor to stop right now the politics of character smear and character assassination that apparently he learned at the elbow of Newt Gingrich."

Ehrlich said he had no comment on the substance of the mayor's allegations but said that "O'Malley points fingers."

"Whining is not a leadership style," Ehrlich said. "I don't like whiners. I've never associated with whiners."

He said his administration could not respond every time the mayor "acts out, every time he whines, every time he points a finger."

The Maryland Republican Party also declined to comment yesterday, deferring to Ehrlich. A Gingrich spokesman, Rick Tyler, accused O'Malley yesterday of his own subtle smear campaign against the former U.S. House speaker.

Ehrlich did respond earlier this year when O'Malley held another news conference outside City Hall to address an Ehrlich aide's rumor-mongering about the mayor's marriage on a conservative Web site. The aide, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., was fired in February after he admitted his actions.

Now O'Malley claims other Ehrlich operatives are diverting attention from that public relations setback by giving media outlets proof that the rumors long preceded Ehrlich's election.

O'Malley's comments came in response to WBAL Radio's report yesterday on a March 2000 Washington Post article in which the mayor's wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, acknowledged rumors shortly after O'Malley took office. Yesterday's radio story quoted media observers as saying the mainstream press failed to report that the rumors existed long before Steffen was caught.

O'Malley pointed out that Steffen admitted that he had worked with other Ehrlich administration employees to keep the rumors alive and that these unidentified workers are still employed by state government. The mayor said Ehrlich operatives had given WBAL Radio copies of e-mails from his wife's brother, J. Joseph "Max" Curran III, a member of the state's Public Service Commission.

In the e-mails, copies of which were obtained by The Sun, Commissioner Curran calls the mayor's wife a "loose cannon" because she was quoted in The Post's March 10, 2000, article saying the mayor's public praise of her "helps offset the rumors ... that he's running around on me, that he's been running around on me for years."

She also said in the article that O'Malley's opponents from the 1999 mayoral election had spread rumors about the mayor.

"I think we need to get the first lady a press secretary," Commissioner Curran wrote in an e-mail to First Deputy Mayor Michael R. Enright after the article's publication. "What's this business about telling reporters that Martin is running around. Part of the [deputy mayors'] job should be getting Martin [h]ome with the kids - I fear the worst."

Curran also wrote that his sister "needs some help with both Martin's absentee-ism and the presses' cut throat inclination."

The mayor's wife declined to comment yesterday.

The e-mails from Commissioner Curran were obtained by WBAL Radio in response to a public information act request the station made to the Public Service Commission on May 11.