Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said Thursday that showing up at a "beach week" party of teenagers and not investigating whether there was underage drinking was "a mistake that I made."
"Perhaps I should have assumed there was drinking going on, and I got that wrong," Gansler said.
He said he stopped only briefly at the party in Delaware last June to see his son and left without asking the teenagers — including shirtless boys and a girl dancing on a tabletop — about the red plastic cups scattered around the party.
"There could be Kool-Aid in the red cups, but there's probably beer in the red cups," he told reporters.
Gansler, Maryland's chief law enforcement officer and a candidate for governor, held a news conference Thursday after The Baltimore Sun published a photo that showed him at the center of the party in South Bethany, along with his comments that he had no "moral responsibility" to intervene.
The image and Gansler's assertion made national news Thursday. Gansler has been an outspoken advocate for stricter laws against underage drinking.
The episode delivers the latest blow to Gansler's campaign for the Democratic nomination next year.
"Can things get any worse?" asked Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.
Gansler has faced allegations that he ordered the state troopers on his security detail to drive recklessly and speed, failed to pay for traffic tickets and described his chief Democratic political rival Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, an African-American, as relying on his racial heritage to get elected.
In each case, analysts said, the damage was amplified by Gansler's response.
"He's just had one mistake after another," Crenson said. "I just can't believe people are going to put up with this."
At the news conference in front of his Silver Spring campaign headquarters, Gansler dismissed suggestions that his bid for governor had faltered.
"We're in it. We're going to win it," Gansler said. "The people of Maryland, they want somebody with the character, judgment, record, vision, authenticity, who is genuine and going to make the best Maryland. We're fine."
At the same time, Gansler reversed some of his comments about his responsibility at the party. Campaign spokesman Bob Wheelock said the change came "after reflection."
The party came at the end of a weeklong trip Gansler and other parents helped organize and finance for a dozen boys who had just graduated from the Landon School, a private school for boys in Bethesda.
Written rules given to the teens who were staying at the house for the week forbade drinking "hard liquor," but included no such instructions about beer.
On Thursday, Gansler described himself as a father facing "the tension for all parents" of teenagers about to leave for college.
"How much do you let them go? How much do you sort of rein them in?" he said. In hindsight, he said, "I should have assumed that there was drinking."
Gansler said his son wasn't drinking at the party.
The report sparked a vigorous debate on Baltimore talk radio about the responsibilities of parents to monitor the alcohol use of their underage children. Former Ravens owner David Modell called in to WBAL-AM to demand Gansler's resignation.
Gansler was captured on video and in a still photograph at the house while the party appeared to be in full swing. It's unclear how many teens were consuming alcohol; underage participants who were at the party told The Sun that many revelers were drinking.
The attorney general told The Sun that he stopped by the Delaware beach house to talk with his teenage son and then left.
Earlier this week, he said he did not remember whether he saw anyone drinking, but added that even if he had, it was not his responsibility to interfere.
"Assume for purposes of discussion that there was widespread drinking at this party," Gansler told The Sun earlier. "How is that relevant to me? … The question is, do I have any moral authority over other people's children at beach week in another state? I say no."
On Thursday, Gansler told reporters, "There's no question I have a moral responsibility over other people's children."
Gansler said Thursday that Delaware law allowed the teens who were staying at the house to drink alcohol on the premises.
But John Yeomans, director of Delaware's Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement, said that while state law there allows a parent to let his or her own child drink in a private home — including one rented for the week — "it would be unlawful for an adult to … knowingly allow nonfamily members who are underage to drink."
A spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving said Gansler's actions "disheartened" the group.
"This alleged episode points to a bigger problem, and that is the so-called tradition of 'beach week,' during which recent high school graduates flock to local beaches where many consume alcohol underage," spokeswoman Anne Duerr said. "As a community, we must not turn a blind eye on our young people during events like this."
Gansler's running mate, Del. Jolene Ivey of Prince George's County — the mother of five boys — did not respond to requests for comment about the episode.
Brown, who led Gansler for the Democratic nomination in a recent poll by double digits, deflected questions about how Gansler handled the party.
"What the attorney general encountered, that's a matter for him," Brown said Thursday after a campaign event. The lieutenant governor refused to comment on whether the revelations should prompt Gansler to leave the governor's race.
"The question isn't for me," Brown said. "That's a question for the Maryland voters to decide."
Del. Ron George, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, said that as the parent of six he would take a hard line on drinking — including shutting down such a party if he walked in on one.
"I don't think you do any favors to the other parents by trying to act like the hip parent," the Anne Arundel County lawmaker said. "If another parent walks in and my kid is drinking, I want them to say something."
Maryland Policy & Politics Newsletter
Keep up to date with Maryland politics, elections and important decisions made by federal, state and local government officials.
Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, said many parents would understand the desire of a father to create a protected environment for his child to party.
But he said the circumstances — renting a luxury home at the beach for a party week — could prove very damaging for Gansler.
"It just stinks of privilege and the idea that if you have the means you can live by an entirely different set of rules," Eberly said. "Everything about it reeks of elitism. … The optics of it are awful."
Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Jean Marbella contributed to this article.