Last week saw two big milestones in the competitive and wide-open race to be Baltimore's next mayor — the first televised debate, sponsored by The Sun, the University of Baltimore, WJZ-TV and the League of Women Voters; and the pre-primary campaign finance disclosure. Both offer clues about how the last month of this contest is going to unfold. Here are the important things to watch between now and April 26:
What happens when Dixon goes on offense?
Former mayor Sheila Dixon is heading into the final month of the campaign with the cash edge over her closest rival, Sen. Catherine Pugh, who won't be able to turn her attention to the race full time until the legislative session ends on April 11.
Ms. Dixon is up with her first television ad, a positive spot focused on small business owners talking about how supportive she was when she was mayor. It has a nice, inspirational quality to it, but it is in line with Ms. Dixon's penchant for couching her campaign as a restoration, which Ms. Pugh has neatly countered by pitching herself as a candidate who will take the city forward, not backward.
Hanging over her effort is the memory of the ethical lapses that forced her from office. It is now clear that Ms. Dixon does not intend any kind of meaningful accounting of her past wrongdoing. She had the opportunity for it in Tuesday's debate, but she stuck to a vague "There are lessons that are learned, and I learned those lessons." Evidently, that's good enough for some voters, but will it satisfy enough of them to win the election? And will Ms. Pugh or another well funded candidate mount a direct assault on the less savory elements of Ms. Dixon's record?
How much will Warnock spend?
The latest campaign finance reports showed that businessman David Warnock has spent an astonishing $1.5 million of his own money, most of it on advertising. The most recent Sun/University of Baltimore poll had him in third place with 10 percent, still well behind Ms. Dixon and Ms. Pugh, though certainly in an improved position compared to where he was at the beginning of the race. The question now is not only whether he will keep up the ferocious pace of his television advertising but also whether he will invest sufficiently in the kind of turnout operation that can match the battle tested Dixon and Pugh teams.
Can someone else break through?
Attorney Elizabeth Embry and City Councilman Nick Mosby landed some hard shots on Ms. Dixon and Ms. Pugh in Tuesday's debate, and Councilman Carl Stokes got pretty fiery toward the end. All three will have enough money to do at least some television advertising in the final weeks of the campaign. But each of them must convince voters not only that the front-runners are fatally flawed but also that he or she is the best alternative. That would be difficult given the time and money constraints, and the presence of so many viable candidates makes it that much harder.
Will outside money play a role?
We've seen a couple of devastating third-party ads attacking Ms. Dixon, but they were web-only and appear not to have had a significant impact on the race. In a post-Citizens United world, though, it's easier than ever for deep-pocketed supporters to step in to prop up or tear down a candidate. Several of the candidates — including Ms. Embry, Ms. Dixon and Mr. Stokes — have already received support from wealthy and well connected patrons who have strong interest in city government. Will one or more of them try to tip the scales?
What's the lesson of Mckesson?
Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson is one of the most interesting figures in the race both because of his own skills as a communicator and because of what he represents. He is a candidate of the social media age with a substantial national following but with no experience in running for office in Baltimore. Have we reached the point where a voters can be motivated and organized on Twitter, or does it still take the kind of old-school turnout operation candidates like Ms. Dixon and Ms. Pugh will employ? Mr. Mckesson may have gotten into the race too late to provide a definitive answer to that question, but the extent to which he can turn out voters — particularly those who have not been involved in city politics before — will be telling about what he or another similar candidate could achieve in the future.