The public focus of Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's re-election effort will shift this week from raising questions about his rival's campaign finances to raising money for his own coffers.
After three weeks of queries about the propriety of the reporting methods and expenditures of City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, Mr. Schmoke and his campaign committee will sponsor a gala, $500-a-person fund-raiser Tuesday at the Christopher Columbus Center.
The event will be the first of four fund-raisers for Mr. Schmoke over two months. It will be followed by campaign rallies throughout the city Saturday as the mayor puts his bid for a third term in gear.
For Mr. Schmoke, the choice of the new research and education center for marine biotechnology at the Inner Harbor as the site of his first event is infused with symbolism.
"It is one of the reasons I think the future is bright for Baltimore," Mr. Schmoke said in an interview.
The center is one of a number of new projects -- ranging from the Children's Museum to a Nehemiah housing project in Cherry Hill -- that he cites as a reason for seeking to remain in office.
"I firmly believe these developments need my leadership to bring to fruition," the mayor said.
On neighborhood issues such as crime and schools, Mr. Schmoke acknowledged he will be judged on his record -- "my record judged against another candidate, not just my record judged against me."
"My hope is that as people look at the city, recognize the difficulties we've had to deal with and look at some of the accomplishments, they will conclude this has been effective leadership," he said.
Mrs. Clarke, who is challenging Mr. Schmoke in September's Democratic Party primary, has no such conclusion.
"We have lost jobs," she said. "We have lost our sense of neighborhood safety and well-being. We have lost population in record numbers. We have lost that sense of community that brings us together.
"That is precisely the record of why I'm running for mayor myself."
The election is 4 1/2 months away but the rhetoric already is high.
At a news conference Thursday, Mr. Schmoke said payments of about $20,000 by Citizens for Clarke to Mrs. Clarke over several years don't "smell right." The Clarke campaign insists the payments are reimbursements for legitimate expenses.
"There's nothing indirect anymore about the comments we're making about each other," the mayor said. "At least at this stage, we're able to give as much as we take."
Earlier last week, Mrs. Clarke lashed out at Mr. Schmoke for being "out of touch" with needs of parents, students and teachers. She also used last week's reassignment of the director of the economic development agency and the expected resignation of the top administrator of the $100 million federal empowerment zone effort to criticize the way Mr. Schmoke makes appointments. Both were hand-picked by the mayor.
"I intend to hit hard on the failures we're dealing with," she said.
Bolstering spirits of Mrs. Clarke and her staff is a March poll they commissioned by a Washington firm that shows the mayor leading the council president by 43 percent to 37 percent, with 16 percent of voters undecided and 4 percent refusing to answer. The poll, by Belden & Russonello, was based on a random survey of 509 likely Democratic voters. It has a sampling error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
"It definitely looks like a tossup at this point," Mrs. Clarke said.
Craig Kirby, spokesman for the Kurt Schmoke Committee, declined to comment on the poll. Larry S. Gibson, the mayor's campaign chairman, would not discuss results of any polls he has commissioned, saying they "cost too much" to share.
The Belden & Russonello poll showed that only 28 percent of the respondents are firmly committed to voting for the mayor. The poll offered no demographic breakdown. But interviews with state delegates and community leaders indicate enthusiasm for Mr. Schmoke among black voters may be weaker than might be expected for the city's first elected black mayor. He took nearly 80 percent of the black vote in 1991.
Charles W. Griffin, president of the West Arlington Improvement Association, described support for the mayor as "soft." "What people seem to be feeling is that Schmoke is a nice guy but that what is needed is stronger leadership," he said.
Added Joseph Tates, president of the Edmondson Village Community Association: "What people think he lacks is a firm hand."
Ronald Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University, said the key question is, "What difference has Kurt Schmoke made in the black community? I'm not sure that most people can answer that in a very enthusiastic way."
Nevertheless, Mr. Walters said he believes Mr. Schmoke can make a convincing case by arguing that he can do more with new tools such as the empowerment zone. "His task will be his ability to rally the troops."
To help Mr. Schmoke do that, volunteers arrive at Schmoke's campaign headquarters nearly every night to make phone calls soliciting support. Tuesday's fund-raiser should add to an indisputable advantage over Mrs. Clarke: money.
The Clarke campaign expects the mayor to raise $3 million and outspend the council president by 4-to-1.
Mr. Gibson said the Schmoke committee hoped to raise "as much as we can" and promised the campaign would "not take anything for granted. We intend to talk to more people, pound on more streets, knock on more doors."
One door they won't be knocking on is that of William Donald Schaefer.
Both Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Gibson said the former mayor and governor already is backing Mrs. Clarke -- and made it clear they don't think it matters much what he does.
"I'm far more interested in my relationship with the current governor than the ex-governor," said Mr. Schmoke, who has had differences with Mr. Schaefer over the years.
For his part, Mr. Schaefer acknowledged talking to Mrs. Clarke but said he hasn't decided whether to endorse anyone -- or mount his own campaign for mayor.
But Mr. Schaefer had some sharp words for Mr. Schmoke.
"The city needs a mayor who's going to do something not just in the last year, but in the whole time you're in office," he said, mentioning specifically the reassignment of the economic development director and a recent initiative on trash pickup.
"I think the mayor shouldn't have a free ride -- he doesn't deserve a free ride," Mr. Schaefer added.
From the look of things, it doesn't appear as if he's going to get one.