Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign is rolling out a major television offensive through the middle of this month by blanketing the Baltimore media market and Maryland's far-flung corners with political commercials.
By Aug. 13, Ehrlich will have spent nearly $1 million flooding the Baltimore region with more than 1,500 30-second campaign ads since late June, according to station reports.
His commercials also have begun hitting the Hagerstown and Salisbury airwaves, according to his campaign.
Over the next two weeks, the Republican incumbent has booked nearly $272,000 worth of airtime to broadcast 400 commercials on Baltimore's four major network affiliates, mostly on WBAL-TV. It's a push that dwarfs Mayor Martin O'Malley's latest ad buy -- $102,000 for 187 spots this week.
"Ehrlich is up big time," said Scott Arceneaux, a veteran political operative who managed Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's aborted Democratic campaign for governor. "Right after Labor Day is when you would typically see this type of push at those levels. You're probably seeing [Ehrlich] every time you're watching the news."
The mayor has spent a total of about $514,000 since early June to broadcast more than 760 ads in the Baltimore market, a region that is considered a bellwether for the Nov. 7 general election
The governor is expected to shatter state spending records by raising $20 million or more for his re-election effort, with much of it going to television.
The investment may be needed to counter some O'Malley advantages: Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 in Maryland, and the governor is trailing the mayor in most polls. A Sun poll released last month showed O'Malley leading Ehrlich, 46 percent to 38 percent. However, O'Malley has lagged behind Ehrlich in fundraising.
In addition to paid ads, another commercial is being launched today -- featuring first lady Kendel Ehrlich and the couple's older son. It's a public service announcement promoting tax-free back-to-school shopping this month and has drawn complaints from Democrats who call the spot an unseemly grab at election-year publicity.
Ehrlich is not the only candidate aggressively hitting the airwaves.
Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler has spent more than $102,000 to air 161 commercials throughout Baltimore this week on all four of the area's network television stations.
Gansler is seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general. Neither of his primary opponents -- former Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms or Montgomery County Councilman Thomas E. Perez -- are on the air.
Gansler's 30-second spot depicts the candidate as a family man and an experienced prosecutor who will be tough on crime. The ad demonstrates his desire to woo voters in the backyard of Simms, whose campaign acknowledges that it cannot afford a TV presence.
In the U.S. Senate race, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin paid $24,000 to air 39 spots next week and has spent an additional $315,000 for 482 commercials that will hit Baltimore in the three weeks before the Sept. 12 Democratic primary.
His chief opponent for the Democratic nomination, former congressman and past National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Kweisi Mfume, has not booked any airtime.
But another Democratic rival, Potomac businessman Josh Rales, is the top spender. Since last month, Rales has paid $575,000 to air nearly 900 ads in Baltimore. Rales also has been on the air in the costlier Washington-area market, where Cardin is scheduled to deliver his message next month, a Washington television executive said.
The candidates are all targeting highly rated local and national news shows and issue-related programs, media experts said.
"The conventional wisdom is that candidates like to put their message in front of news viewers," said Jordan Wertlieb, president and chief executive officer of WBAL-TV. "They consider them to be likely voters."
Arceneaux was most intrigued that Ehrlich has spent money in Hagerstown and Salisbury, where the Republican is popular. He said Ehrlich may be shoring up his support knowing that O'Malley is unlikely to spend money in those areas.
Ehrlich's outpacing O'Malley in television face time with voters could be dangerous for the mayor, said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University.
"O'Malley may not have as much money because he's not out there as much as Ehrlich and that could hurt him," Crenson said.
Democrats said yesterday that Ehrlich has launched his latest campaign ad -- for free. They claim that the Republican is exploiting his office through a public service announcement that begins airing today. In it, Ehrlich's wife and elder son, Drew, promote tax-free shopping from Aug. 23 to 27. The ad was paid for by the Maryland Retailers Association, not by tax dollars, said Tom Saquella, the group's president.
Still, said David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, television stations should refuse to air it "out of a spirit of fairness" in a political season.
"I think it's a blatant misuse of special interests by Ehrlich," Paulson said.
Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor's office, noted that the retailers association sponsored a similar commercial in 2001. Saquella said Parris N. Glendening, who was governor at the time, declined to appear in the spot, but that Comptroller William Donald Schaefer did.
Arthur W. Murphy, a partner at Democracy Group, an Annapolis-based political consulting firm, said such publicity is "fair game."
"Ehrlich has to use everything he can," Murphy email@example.com
Sun reporter Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.