Mayor Martin O'Malley pushed into his Democratic rival's Montgomery County backyard this week for what was supposed to be a cordial community discussion - only to be greeted by disruptive Baltimore residents whose chartered bus trip to Germantown was courtesy of the Doug Duncan for Governor campaign.
Earlier that day, the Montgomery County executive was speaking at a Silver Spring news conference when an O'Malley supporter in the crowd held up a cardboard cut-out of Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist who in 1999 made political contributions to Duncan.
More than 3 1/2 months before Maryland's primary, the two rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination are already aggressively engaging each other.
For O'Malley, the effort suggests a major shift from what was once a gentlemanly, ignore-the-competition strategy - an approach that is about to change even more with plans to launch television commercials next week.
Yesterday, less than two weeks after abruptly switching campaign managers, the mayor bought about $105,000 in air time on six Baltimore-area network television affiliates and on cable, according to sources familiar with the media buy. The move follows a more than $300,000 commercial campaign in Baltimore by Duncan throughout May.
O'Malley and his running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat, have also heated up their rhetoric by claiming they will defeat Duncan in Montgomery County and that the county executive has failed to provide leadership on development issues.
For months, Duncan has been blanketing Baltimore with his television commercials and personal appearances. He recently named Baltimore attorney Stuart O. Simms as his running mate and has wheeled out high-profile endorsements from Baltimore's two former mayors.
Just this past Wednesday, Duncan was in Baltimore for a community meeting with parents worried about a city school board plan to transfer high school-age children into a building with younger pupils.
"They're very concerned about the safety of their kids, as they should be," Duncan said. "I think the mayor needs to spend more time on the schools. We get situations like this because the mayor's not focused on education."
Said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County: "It's starting to get interesting."
"Heretofore they've been ignoring Duncan and right now they're going after him - that's a 180-degree change," he said.
But the Duncan campaign's tactic Thursday of bringing Baltimore residents to O'Malley's Germantown community meeting might be the most aggressive so far.
Jody Couser, a spokeswoman for Duncan, confirmed yesterday that the campaign "did help provide transportation for their trip to Germantown."
Couser said the campaign initiated the trip with certain Baltimore residents whom, she said, "have had trouble seeing the mayor and have been denied opportunities to voice their concerns to him."
Duncan campaign manager Scott Arceneaux said O'Malley should not get a free pass to come to Montgomery County to discuss development issues without openly holding town hall meetings with his own citizens about crime and schools.
"If he wants open town halls, there's a lot of people who want to talk to the mayor about the problems in Baltimore," he said.
Those exact sentiments were echoed Thursday night by a man wearing a Boston Celtics jersey who identified himself to O'Malley officials as Thomas Cheatham of Baltimore. He was one of a half-dozen Baltimore residents delivered by the chartered bus.
When given the microphone, he berated the mayor for not meeting with city residents on issues the way he was meeting with mostly white Montgomery County residents on growth. Vanessa Tucker, also from Baltimore, shouted: "Nothing gets done for poor people." A third, Denise Lowery, shouted: "What about police harassment?"
When a man in the audience asked Tucker to quiet down, Tucker refused. The two stood face to face until they were separated by O'Malley campaign officials.
The mayor told Cheatham that he is free to come to the city's Board of Estimates meeting in City Hall Wednesday mornings before 9 to ask him questions in public.
O'Malley then continued to discuss possible solutions to issues of roads, schools and development facing Montgomery County with comments that subtly picked at Duncan's leadership.
Political observers differed over whether Duncan's efforts will hurt him.
"Those kind of mob tactics - if they get back to you - always hurt," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist.
Crenson recalled that a similar tactic backfired in O'Malley's 1999 mayoral campaign, when an opponent's supporters tried to drown out an O'Malley endorsement announcement.
Norris and Arthur W., Murphy, a partner at the Democracy Group, an Annapolis-based political consulting firm, said such tactics are typical and are unlikely to matter to voters.
"It's not dirty, it's just dumb," Murphy said. "Whoever came up with the idea within the Duncan camp should be fired."
O'Malley, who played up his Montgomery County roots, said he believes he will win the county, and he had plenty of supporters in attendance Thursday to buttress his contention.
"Duncan needs to win big in Montgomery County to win statewide," said Jordan Harding, former longtime mayor of New Carrollton in Prince George's County and now a resident of Leisure World retirement community in Montgomery. "I think Mayor O'Malley is starting to cut Duncan up in Montgomery."
Arceneaux said Duncan has been elected by wide margins to an unprecedented three terms as county executive and that practically all of Montgomery's elected officials are behind him. He said Duncan is so confident in his Montgomery support that he is spending extra time in Baltimore and elsewhere.
Political observers said Duncan and O'Malley would likely both make significant inroads in each other's backyards.
"O'Malley's not going to win [Montgomery County] but he's going to take a big chunk," Murphy said. "But Duncan is going to take a big chunk out of Baltimore metro."
Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.