Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan launched two new television commercials yesterday as part of his campaign's nearly $300,000 push this month to become better known in Baltimore -- with the help of Oprah and Dr. Phil.
The five commercials airing throughout May on Baltimore's four network affiliates demonstrate a tactically aggressive yet potentially risky strategy to compete with Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is leading in fundraising and polls.
Political observers said that the commercials could backfire for their hard-hitting style and that their cost could jeopardize Duncan's long-term financial viability before the Sept. 12 Democratic primary and, if he wins that, the Nov. 7 election. Still, they agreed that Duncan's strategy is logical for a candidate who is considered an underdog.
A review of television station records shows that Duncan's campaign has spent $230,000 to air more than 400 spots since May 3, with WBAL-TV's highly rated shows -- including The Oprah Winfrey Show and Dr. Phil -- landing most of the ads. Based on those records, yesterday's new commercials could push that total closer to $300,000.
Duncan's campaign reported having $1.4 million on hand in January. O'Malley reported $4.2 million. Ehrlich had $8.4 million.
"Duncan has made a race with a pretty scanty budget," said James Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The fact that Duncan has closed the gap with sparse resources suggests that O'Malley is not an unassailable king of the hill."
Arthur W. Murphy, a partner at the Democracy Group, an Annapolis-based political consulting firm, agreed that spending now in Baltimore is smart for Duncan.
"You go to the areas where you have the biggest problem because it's going to take a lot more effort to change people's minds," Murphy said.
Murphy and Duncan campaign officials said the county executive does not yet need to air television ads in the more-expensive Washington market because he has better name recognition there.
"It's no secret Doug needs to get better known in the Baltimore market, and these advertisements are part of that effort," said Jody Couser, a Duncan spokeswoman. "The ads and the addition of [Baltimore lawyer Stuart O. Simms] to the ticket have generated a new surge of fundraising for the campaign."
Murphy said spending money helps raise money. But in a year with several statewide offices facing competitive races, he added that "just about everybody is tapped out."
By airing the commercials in May -- sweeps month -- Duncan gets his message out before summer, when many voters tune out television while on vacations and weekend getaways.
The Sun's review of Duncan's commercial contracts with the area's four main network television stations -- WMAR-TV Channel 2, WBAL-TV Channel 11, WJZ-TV Channel 13 and WBFF-TV Channel 45 -- shows his ads have been airing mostly on popular morning and daytime shows.
Most of his spots have appeared on WBAL-TV during some of the station's highest-rated shows -- Oprah, The Ellen Show, Dr. Phil, Today, Live with Regis & Kelly. His commercials have also aired during Judge Judy, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, The Price Is Right and local and national news programs on all stations.
Since his first biographical spot earlier this month, Duncan's last four commercials have taken a hard-hitting turn that O'Malley and Ehrlich officials have characterized as negative. In all of the commercials aired, Duncan appears on screen with life-size cardboard, color cutouts of O'Malley and Ehrlich.
Ehrlich campaign manager Bo Harmon said this week that one 15-second Duncan commercial -- in which the county executive says the governor "thinks we need more assault weapons on the street" -- is "blatantly false information." In the one released yesterday, Duncan says that Ehrlich has cut higher education by $120 million.
But Duncan's critique on the assault weapons has changed. In the new commercial, Duncan states that "Ehrlich will not support an assault weapons ban."
According to Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, the governor reduced funding to education in his first two years to help balance the budget and avoid a $4 billion shortfall. He then increased funding by 13 percent from fiscal year 2003 until the fiscal year beginning July 1.
One commercial also said that O'Malley has exaggerated his administration's success at reducing violent crime. The two commercials released yesterday say that O'Malley "promised to cut murders almost in half but hasn't come close" and that the mayor "is spending more money on a hotel than on schools."
In one, Duncan pledges to put "1,000 more cops on the streets" and directs viewers to his Web site. In the other, he says he has a plan to help every school in Maryland.
O'Malley pledged to reduce homicides to 175 a year, but the number has never gotten below 253. He has repeatedly said his administration has reduced violent crime by "nearly 40 percent." But many experts, including the city's own FBI consultant, said the drop is closer to 23.5 percent.
O'Malley campaign officials zeroed in on Duncan's hotel-schools claim.
In the current fiscal year, the city has given the Baltimore public schools $285 million, according to the mayor's office.
Last summer, the city authorized borrowing $305 million in bonds to build a convention center hotel. The bonds will be paid off by revenue generated from the hotel's operation. Baltimore Development Corp. officials have said the hotel will pay for itself.
But some City Council members have worried that the city could bear the costs if the venture fails. In that case, O'Malley officials have said, the city would use tax income from the hotel -- and possibly the occupancy tax from all Baltimore hotels -- to pay off its debt.
"Mr. Duncan's latest ad is his most dishonest yet," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "While misleading the public, he demonstrates that he has no understanding of a [hotel] project that will create hundreds of jobs in Baltimore. This project spends zero tax dollars compared to the millions the county executive has overspent on taxpayer-funded development in his county."
Marilynn Duker, a member of the city's Board of Finance and president of Shelter Development LLC, called Duncan's claim "nonsense."
The hotel "is not secured by the full faith and credit of the city," Duker said. "The city is purely a pass-through issuer of the bonds."
Ron DeJuliis, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council and an O'Malley ally, said Duncan dismissed a hotel that will generate hundreds of jobs.
"Doug has to do what's best for his campaign," DeJuliis said. "He's doing this to try to springboard in the ratings."