Who cares about the $1.7 billion budget shortfall? Forget about education or traffic congestion or gun control.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce sponsored a candidates forum in the governor's race last Friday and the 250 or so people in attendance were itching to know: What about Hilda Mae's ugly little fountain?

The fountain in question, a 12-foot-high pale green ornament, has sat on the lawn of the governor's mansion in Annapolis for 12 years. It was commissioned by Hilda Mae Snoops, the longtime companion of then-governor William Donald Schaefer (D).

The fountain has been dry as a bone, however, since May 2001, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered the water shut off. Glendening explained his decision as a symbolic measure to conserve water during a time of drought, but the move enraged Schaefer, who took it as a personal affront and has been a thorn in the side of his successor ever since.

Eager to avoid a confrontation with the mercurial Schaefer, the major-party gubernatorial candidates made clear weeks ago that there will be a 180-degree shift in state fountain policy should they be elected. They repeated their pledges Friday in front of the Chamber of Commerce after a questioner pressed them on their stance.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican nominee, said: "I'll turn on the fountain, yeah. I'll turn on the fountain. I'll train Drew to do it." Drew Ehrlich is the candidate's 3-year-old son.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) also said she was all for resurrecting Hilda Mae's fountain, but gave an answer that left many in the audience scratching their heads.

"The answer is not only yes," Townsend said, "but I've talked to Jack Johnson in Prince George's County about it. . . . He and I absolutely love fountains."

Huh? What's the connection between the fountain in Annapolis and Johnson, the Prince George's state's attorney and Democratic nominee for county executive?

A translation was offered by John McDonough, counsel to the Prince George's Democratic Central Committee. "Jack Johnson loves fountains," he said. "Probably not too many people here know that."

Stinging Barbs

With the race a dead heat, both gubernatorial campaigns are getting a little testy. Over the past week, spokesmen for Townsend and Ehrlich have reacted with indignation and moral outrage to some tongue-in-cheek barbs launched by the other side.

To wit: On Monday, Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm expressed shock over a report in The Washington Post quoting Ehrlich's rendition of "Livin' la Vida Loca" with a Baltimore karaoke performer named Shawna.

"She'll make you take your clothes off and go dancing in the rain," sang Ehrlich, who then turned to the audience and asked: "We're not talking about Townsend, are we?"

Retorted Hamm: "A sitting U.S. congressman talking about his opponent asking him to take his clothes off? Come on. . . . His comments are not worthy of a bowling alley, let alone the governor's mansion. It's the definition of boorish."

Never mind that some prominent Townsend cheerleaders have hurled insults that would make Miss Manners blush. Most notorious was Democratic field operative Julius Henson, who last month labeled Ehrlich a "Nazi" and said "he should be running in Germany in 1942, not Maryland in 2002."

Last week, Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore) questioned Ehrlich's manhood when he called the Republican "a girlie man" and accused him of being afraid to debate Townsend. Rawlings has also denounced Ehrlich's running mate, Michael Steele, as a "lap dog."

The response from the Ehrlich camp: Ouch! Stop!

"The personal insults are just breathtaking," said Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick. "It's downright immature."

Party Perspective

Retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, has a star-spangled re{acute}sume{acute} that suggests a lifelong devotion to democratic principles.

He was president of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy and later returned to Annapolis as superintendent of his alma mater. He served as a nuclear submarine commander in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia, skippering the USS Halibut during a super-secret mission to tap into a Soviet undersea communications cable. In 1991, he was named commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command and oversaw 350,000 military personnel.

So as a military man who dedicated his career to fighting communism, what does Larson think about Ehrlich's constant complaint that 30 years of one-party rule by Maryland Democrats have resulted in "a culture of corruption in Annapolis?"

Nothing wrong with one-party rule at all, Larson said in a recent interview with Washington Post reporters and editors, as long as the dominant power behaves properly. And no, he doesn't think there has been a culture of corruption in the state capital.

"I don't have a problem with one party in power at all," said Larson, a longtime Republican who changed his stripes a few days before Townsend picked him as her running mate.