Until last week, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had downplayed a University of Maryland study showing that the race of the victim is a significant factor when Maryland prosecutors choose whether to pursue the death penalty. But Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele clearly thought the study deserved more attention.

Steele, the first African American elected statewide in Maryland and a death penalty opponent, said in an interview last week that he found the study's conclusions "troubling" and that he would urge Ehrlich to undertake a new study to determine why black killers of white victims are disproportionately targeted for execution.

Steele's pronouncement, which was published Sunday, took Ehrlich by surprise. On Monday, the governor rushed to respond, meeting with Steele and chief aides. By day's end the administration had concluded that the Paternoster study indeed deserves a second look, even as Ehrlich rescinds former governor Parris N. Glendening's moratorium on the death penalty.

And so this week, while Ehrlich began reviewing information about what could be the state's first execution in nearly five years, Steele began scheduling meetings with prosecutors and other parties to discuss problems in the system.

So long as Ehrlich insists that prosecutors retain maximum discretion in deciding which murder cases deserve the death penalty, observers say it's hard to see how Steele's task can produce any concrete reforms. Steele said he will support Ehrlich regardless of how he decides to proceed.

"This governor's heart and head are in the right place," Steele said this week.

Steele may find it relatively easy to maintain that position through the first execution, now scheduled for mid-March. The condemned man, Steven H. Oken, is white.

But by the end of the year, Steele could see six black men sent to the death chamber, all convicted of killing whites. As a black man who opposes the death penalty on religious grounds, he said even he is unsure how he will react to that.

Duncan's Out of the Gate

Has the 2006 race for governor already begun?

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has been front and center among Democratic critics of Ehrlich's budget, accusing the new Republican governor of breaking his campaign promise -- already! -- to end gridlock in the Washington suburbs.

Duncan said Ehrlich's budget plan would steal up to $700 million from transportation funds by transferring $300 million from the state's primary road-building account to general purposes, by pushing an additional $200 million in spending for the Woodrow Wilson bridge out of the general fund and into the road-building account, and by reclaiming $200 million over two years that would normally go to the counties for road projects.

"It took Glendening four years to flip on the [intercounty connector]. Ehrlich is flipping on transportation after two days," Duncan said when Ehrlich released his budget earlier this month.

Since then, Duncan has pressed his attack with reporters, during trips around the state and during regular visits to Annapolis. Recently, as Duncan waited outside the Senate president's office in the State House, a reporter asked whether Duncan ever gets to Rockville these days.

Duncan blushed and smiled.

Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick, meanwhile, dismissed Duncan's $700 million criticism as "very creative math."

O'Malley's Rising Profile

Another potential rival to Ehrlich in 2006 is drawing national attention. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley delivered the Democratic response to President Bush's radio address last Saturday.

Not long before that, O'Malley was praised as one of the nation's "best and brightest" in Esquire magazine, which published a fawning profile of the mayor written by a reporter who followed him around town.

But O'Malley has to get past this fall's mayoral elections before he can even think about running for governor or any other higher office. And Patricia C. Jessamy, the state's attorney for Baltimore City, is sending signals that she intends to stand in his way.

The latest sign: Jessamy, who has feuded with O'Malley over her prosecution of city crimes, criticizes the Esquire piece in a letter to the editor published in the magazine's February issue.

The O'Malley story was "very biased and shortsighted . . . a self-serving story that sounded more like an insider's account of a sophomoric locker room."

By the way, Jessamy writes, "I did not see a list of the mayor's criminal justice accomplishments over the past three years. Perhaps they were lost somewhere in the conversation between the bumpy ride to the airport and the four-dollar honeydews at the gourmet grocery store."