Since their television commercials began broadcasting in the Baltimore television market last month, the Democratic rivals for governor have been exchanging harsh, thumbs-down reviews of each other's ads.
Montgomery County Douglas M. Duncan's campaign says Mayor Martin O'Malley's two ads this month indicate that the mayor is worried that the county executive's five commercials, which aired primarily in May and were critical of O'Malley, have cut into the city leader's hometown support.
O'Malley's camp said Duncan's ads display his negative inclinations and that his halt in commercials indicate that he is running out of money. They also said the mayor's commercials - which never mention Duncan - are timed to capitalize on Baltimore-area voters' attention to electricity rate increases.
Both candidates cite polls, either internal or from supporters, to further buttress their positions: that Duncan has gained ground in Baltimore and that O'Malley still holds a lead.
Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says both camps are exaggerating the implications of their commercial strategies.
"The assumption that TV advertising is the only thing that causes people to be motivated to vote - it's a weak assumption," Norris said.
The candidates beg to differ, as would Baltimore's five network affiliates, which have been reaping the benefits of campaign spending. Duncan spent at least $325,000 on ads that ran throughout May and into early June. O'Malley is spending at least $210,000 to run commercials that began June 5 and are scheduled to run through Sunday.
Some political observers, at first, were surprised that O'Malley would go on the air in his hometown just days after Duncan's monthlong commercial push. The decision also followed the mayor's decision to change campaign managers. Both moves indicated that Duncan's ads might have given him a bump in polls that worried O'Malley.
But O'Malley's commercials also followed city victories in the fight to reduce the proposed 72 percent increase in electricity rates paid by more than 1 million BGE customers.
Going on the air in the Baltimore television market, where most of those customers live, might have appeared to be perfect political timing for O'Malley as the debate became the state's top political issue.
O'Malley said it would have been fair to accuse his campaign of responding to Duncan if it had aired commercials a week after the Montgomery executive first broadcast. The mayor said his campaign is airing their commercials because "we felt it was time to frame the message of the campaign."
"It wasn't a reaction to him," O'Malley said. "It was in determining the pace of the race and also other current events."
Duncan said the mayor has blatantly followed his lead.
"He's reacting to what we've done," Duncan said. "Nobody's watching in June."
Duncan also said his commercials "were very effective ... because [O'Malley's] up on the air in his hometown."
James Gimpel, a University of Maryland political science professor, said O'Malley's strategy of not mentioning Duncan in his ads was smart.
"I think they're concerned about Duncan but they don't want to signal that by running ads that make a big deal of Duncan," Gimpel said. "They're going to ignore Duncan as long as they can."
Gimpel said O'Malley might be buying commercials in Baltimore to try to negate any gains in name recognition that Duncan made with his ads. But it's also cheaper to buy TV ads in Baltimore than in the Washington region, where Duncan is better known.
Gimpel said Duncan might have stopped running commercials to conserve money.
"In the last month, when people are thinking about the primary, O'Malley will be able to outspend Duncan," Gimpel said. "The gap may be less than it was in January but Duncan still doesn't have the amount of money that O'Malley has to spend in the last month" before the Sept. 12 primary.
In January, the mayor's campaign reported having $4.2 million; Duncan reported $1.4 million.
The mayor's aides said that Duncan has stopped airing ads because his campaign is running out of money.
"Doug's desperate Hail Mary failed and he burned what little [money] he had left in the process," said O'Malley's communications director, Hari Sevugan, referring to Duncan's May commercials. Referring to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and the president, he added: "Maryland families can't afford to have a financially weak nominee fighting the Ehrlich-Bush spin machine."
Many observers saw Duncan's commercials as a smart tactic to improve his name recognition in Baltimore, spur fundraising and capitalize on coverage from picking Stuart O. Simms, a Baltimore attorney, as his running mate.
Duncan said his commercials are no longer running because June viewership is smaller than May. He said O'Malley's claim that he is running out of money is just a way to avoid debating him.
"All his talk about how I'm out of money - he won't debate me," Duncan said.
O'Malley indicated that the verbal sparring between the campaigns and the one-sided TV posturing would eventually culminate in a face-to-face debate.
"We will have debates, but we will have them closer to the primary, as we always do, when more people are paying attention," O'Malley said.