Mayor Martin O'Malley has shed the suit coat, tossed aside the canned rhetoric and the image of the data-quoting technocrat and has gone on the attack against an underfunded but defiant rival.
O'Malley's aggressive and emotional responses to challenger Andrey Bundley during Wednesday's debate at Western High School were a shift from the mayor's stately and restrained demeanor at their first face-off Aug. 15, when Bundley and his supporters commanded the room.
Political observers say the attention Bundley has gained in part through grass-roots campaigning and spirited performances at forums has sent the O'Malley campaign into high gear, determined to emerge from the Sept. 9 Democratic primary with a decisive victory.
"The second you don't take an election seriously is the second you have serious problems," O'Malley said. "I'm going pedal to the metal."
Although few predict that the mayor will lose, a narrow victory could also mean a loss of sorts for O'Malley, who needs to look strong for possible future runs for higher office. He also wants the approval of a majority of African-American voters to show that he has a mandate from the black community, which makes up two-thirds of the city's electorate.
Some veteran observers of campaigns are predicting a blowout by O'Malley, saying he could capture as much as 70 percent of the total vote. But others are warning that Bundley could perform better than expected - and that a close race is possible, with Bundley taking perhaps 40 percent of the vote.
Whatever the outcome, Bundley has succeeded by forcing O'Malley to engage him as a serious candidate despite the fact that this is the high school principal's first foray into politics and he has less than 1 percent of what the incumbent has in campaign funds.
"O'Malley has been compelled to debate Bundley," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. "I think Bundley is going to do a lot better than [O'Malley's] people think."
Crenson said Bundley's attacks on what he calls aggressive policing have resonated with many in the black community, forcing O'Malley to defend his Police Department.
"We are glad to see we have them on their heels," said Bundley, principal of Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy. "Now they're going to have to finish the race talking about our issues."
O'Malley said he changed tactics between his first and second debates to be more himself - loose, animated and confident. He wanted Wednesday's audience to see a strong leader, not a cold technocrat rattling off statistics about the city's progress, as he might have seemed during the first debate at Coppin State College on Aug. 15.
The mayor said his brother and campaign manager, Peter O'Malley, advised him to loosen up.
"My little brother said, 'Enough with the statistics. Be you,'" O'Malley said. "The first debate was fine, but I made an adjustment. Rather than drive myself crazy by being calm, cool and collected, when people utter falsehoods, I decided I have to correct them."
Bundley said he has earned O'Malley's respect by canvassing the city, knocking on doors and relentlessly countering the mayor's assertions that his administration has reduced violent crime, improved schools and increased job opportunities.
"Either way it goes on September 9, O'Malley's bubble of invincibility is over," said Julius Henson, Bundley's campaign strategist. "Why is Bundley still around? If he started at 1 percent and gets 45 percent of the vote, obviously that's an accomplishment."
Bundley's solid performance at the first debate might have boosted his credibility, but factors beyond his control helped drive him to the head of the pack of seven little-known candidates challenging O'Malley.
All well-known politicians contemplating a challenge bowed out, and his arrest gave him the name recognition he lacked early on.
A Baltimore police officer handcuffed Bundley for distributing campaign fliers illegally July 27. Bundley basked in three days of major media coverage.
"The police commissioner turned into his campaign manager," said Arthur W. Murphy, a political consultant and managing partner of Politicom Creative. Given a media platform, Bundley then showed he could deliver impassioned arguments about police misbehavior, "giving black voters cause for a second thought," Murphy said.
State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and an O'Malley supporter, said O'Malley's goal is to capture a majority of the city's black vote. O'Malley received about a third of that vote in 1999 in a three-way race with two black candidates.
"The mayor's minimum standard is that he receive at least 51 percent of the African-American vote," Rawlings said. "I predict he'll do much better than that. ... But there is still a desire by African-Americans to have an African-American mayor, and so his campaign has to compete against that."
Election experts agree that turnout for the vote will be low, probably near 30 percent. That would mean fewer than 70,000 of the 233,663 registered Democratic voters would vote.
Although some 16-year-olds will be allowed to vote in this primary for the first time in history, only 855 people this age have registered so far with the city's Board of Elections.
"There's very little excitement, very little interest," said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, who served 12 years as chairman of the city's Board of Elections. "Low turnout benefits the incumbent. The ones voting are those who put [the incumbent] in the office the first time."
O'Malley has almost $1.6 million in campaign funds left, having poured $273,000 into TV ads and other media in the past two weeks, according to finance reports filed yesterday. The campaign has paid $67,466 to the Tyson Organization of Fort Worth Texas, which is calling tens of thousands of city voters, trying to find out if they're undecided - and if so, directing follow-up calls and literature their way.
The mayor's schedule is packed with five or six news conferences a day, plus more campaign stops and occasional performances at night with his guitar.
Bundley is also knocking on doors and speaking out at political forums. But with only $13,000 left in his campaign account - about a third of which was donated by Bundley - he can't afford TV ads. He instead relies on fliers, signs and tape-recorded phone solicitations, according to campaign reports.
Still, even some supporters say O'Malley will not achieve the vote tally - 70 percent - that Rawlings said some O'Malley internal campaign polls are predicting.
State Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat, predicts a close race.
"People are predicting a blowout, but I don't think so," said McFadden. "Mr. Bundley is a very formidable candidate. ... He is a very passionate and committed person. But I support Martin O'Malley because I think he's done a great job as mayor."
Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman of First Mariner Bank and an O'Malley supporter, doesn't think much of the mayor's opponents: "I think O'Malley is going to win by acclamation. He doesn't have much competition that I can see. The other people just aren't up to his level."
Others have different expectations for the mayoral race. They are looking statewide to the governor's race in 2006 and wondering what O'Malley's September showing could portend. Republicans who see him as a possible threat to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will be looking for signs of weakness.
Eric Sutton, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said, "I think if [O'Malley] doesn't have a big victory, it definitely could hurt him moving forward."
Richard E. Hug, chief fund-raiser for Ehrlich, said, "A narrow victory would be a negative thing for O'Malley. If you can't win by a wide margin in a place you've been running for four years, that is a problem."
Local Republican leader Victor Clark Jr. said O'Malley is smart enough to end his campaign strongly, no matter how he began.
O'Malley "may have been a step too soft at the start," Clark said. "But now that the date's in striking distance, it's time for him to play hardball."