Two of Baltimore's high-profile Democratic mayoral candidates launched yesterday a barrage of more than 320 television commercials targeting undecided voters during the final weekend of the campaign while a third is targeting African-American voters in particular by saturating certain cable television shows with more than 700 spots scheduled to run before Tuesday's primary.
The blitz came on a day when a candidate for City Council president had to clarify an "endorsement" from NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, city elections officials noted a rise in absentee ballots and campaigns took to city street corners with workers waving at intersections clogged with honking drivers flashing the thumbs-up sign.
Baltimore's election office said yesterday that it has handed out nearly 3,300 absentee ballots, evidence that interest in the first city primary without an incumbent mayor in 28 years is swelling. Of the absentee ballots dispatched, 1,600 Democrats and 246 Republicans have returned the forms.
"That is kind of high for a city election," said Elections Director Barbara E. Jackson, who attributed the increase to publicity over recent campaign trickery. "All of that nonsense has made people want to vote."
To reach those still undecided on whom they'll choose for mayor, City Councilman Martin O'Malley and former City Councilman Carl Stokes will make a final pitch on television. Records reviewed at three television stations -- Fox 45, WMAR-TV and WBAL-TV -- show that O'Malley and Stokes have paid for their spots to run 160 times each between yesterday and Tuesday.
The O'Malley ads on crime and education have been running for weeks, while Stokes, who raised less campaign money, began running his commercials, which were filmed in black-and-white and featured his grandmother, on Wednesday.
The other chief candidate, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, did not buy air time on any of the major network-affiliated stations in the Baltimore area, but, according to campaign officials, has chosen to run 720 ads on various local cable shows available from TeleCommunications Inc.
Also, said David Brown, a Bell spokesman, the campaign has bought time for 42 ads on Channel 54 of the UPN network.
"This is strategy marketing targeting our voters," Brown said. Asked to define "our voters," Brown said: "A certain constituency cable-watching inner-city people, African-American people in particular."
Bell hit the screen first with a commercial endorsement from the city Fraternal Order of Police. His purchase to run another ad featuring support from a group of clergy expired this week. He is also shooting a new commercial to run over the weekend, Brown said.
Bell, O'Malley and Stokes are the most known in a field of 17 Democrats seeking to succeed Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who will step down in December. Six Republicans are seeking their party's nomination for the November general election.
Nearly 100 campaign workers and candidates swamped the corners of North Avenue and McCulloh Street during afternoon rush hour yesterday trying to drum up support for the candidates.
Former state senator and WOLB-AM 1010 morning radio talk show host Larry Young launched the get-out-the-vote drive after predictions by election experts such as Jackson put Tuesday's expected turnout as low as 30 percent.
Eric Easton, a candidate for City Council in the 4th District, stood with sign in hand as sweat beaded on his head. As a political newcomer, Easton doesn't have big campaign contributions to pay for radio or television ads, so he had to resort to shoe leather, he said.
"I have to get out and show I really want the job," Easton said. "And if I'm elected, I'll be elected on the strength of the people."
City Election Board Chairman Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham joined Young in holding signs that simply said: "Vote."
"Sen. Young really has to be commended for his idea," Cheatham said. "This is what we are all about."
Bell joined the event and gained the support of U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who stood near the 12-year West Baltimore councilman. Before the event, Bell held a news conference in front of Southern High School to announce his plan for a program that will provide summer job opportunities for youths ages 14 to 18.
Surrounded by several students from the school, Bell said the effort would help keep city youths off the streets.
Sheila Dixon, a candidate for president of the City Council, apologized yesterday for campaign literature indicating that Mfume had endorsed her campaign. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People rules prohibit officials in the organization from endorsing candidates for public office.
In a glossy black, red and white pamphlet, Mfume talks about Dixon's work in community and for the government. At the end of the pamphlet, a quote attributed to Mfume reads, "On Tuesday, September 14, cast your vote for Sheila Dixon for City Council President."
Dixon said she never intended to imply that Mfume was endorsing her campaign. She said consultants for her campaign said the pamphlet had been approved and posed no problems for Dixon's campaign or for Mfume.
Mfume backed Dixon's account, saying his comments were thoughts on Dixon as a person rather than a candidate, and that the councilwoman who replaced him in the 4th District council seat did not intend to mislead voters.
Sun staff writer Erin Texeira contributed to this article.