O'Malley's image: a work in progress; Tightrope: The Democratic candidate for mayor of Baltimore sets a tone that could define a career.


THE balancing act required of Democratic mayoral nominee Martin O'Malley challenges all his political skills.

Assumed by many to be the general election winner, he is expected to begin assembling his administration now. At the same time, he is asked to run as if he were in a tight contest -- in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-1.

He appears at forums with David F. Tufaro, the Republican candidate -- while answering questions from people who already think of him as the mayor:

Will he choose a police commissioner from within the department's ranks or go outside? Will he borrow ideas from experts who worked successfully on city problems elsewhere? How will he relate to state government?

He tries to answer without buying into the assumption that he is already elected: He knows some people think he is arrogant.

Yet, at a campaign stop he is almost held responsible for a fatal police shooting. He does not shrink from the questions -- though he has no power. He handles the crowd of demonstrators with understanding and authority.

Even the incidental things he does have heightened significance now -- an unguarded comment, a telling posture, an ill-chosen word.

When he seemed to be calling former Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier a tyrant in Latin, he thought he was merely chatting with a reporter working on a longer-range story. When his comment was printed the next day, the words seemed deliberately unkind.

He indicated he hadn't realized the remark would be used in a next-day story about the commissioner's departure.

He's operating now in an unforgiving environment. Moreover, since he declines to withdraw or soften what he said, one can only assume he wished then and now to be seen as unrepentant and tough in pursuit of change.

Meanwhile, he must campaign. He meets with the Greater Baltimore Committee, with various policy gurus, with former mayors, with the current mayor.

During a debate, he gets his picture in the paper leaning back and looking at the ceiling as if he is a bit peeved. Did he want people to think he was bored with the process, the questions, his opponent?

At the same event, he spoke of wading through "crap" from critics of his zero-tolerance approach to crime in Baltimore. He ran in the primary on zero tolerance, but now he calls it "quality of life policing."

This campaign is clearly not of equal partisan forces. But it will provide a closer look at the man Baltimore will likely elect mayor.

The way the candidates define themselves in the coming days -- the image they create, the tone they set -- is likely to be with them for months and years. Their political careers -- and the city's future -- hang in the balance.

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