A June 23 Metro article incorrectly reported the reason an Associated Press dispatch did not reflect a caveat in a speech by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). In his speech, Duncan said he wants to be governor but said he was not ready to announce. The caveat was not mentioned in a Cumberland Times-News story, upon which the AP item was based. (Published 6/24/2005)

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley says he collected more than $2 million at a fundraiser Monday night. He spent yesterday afternoon in Montgomery County, the back yard of the other technically unannounced 2006 Democratic primary aspirant, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

But when a reporter asked O'Malley why he has not formally declared his candidacy for governor of Maryland, he seemed unable to summon an answer, saying such an announcement might come "sometime not in the too-distant future."

It is one of the oddities of Maryland's political landscape at this moment: O'Malley and Duncan are both clearly running for governor, yet are engaged in a form of semantic gymnastics to avoid formally declaring themselves candidates.

Each man has made no secret of his plans. Both have hired a campaign managers. Both say they have raised in excess of $2 million. Both have been traveling the state, making appearances before partisan crowds.

And both have been trying, at times gamely, to avoid crossing that rhetorical threshold.

There have been slip-ups, as when an overeager O'Malley intern called reporters and said he was from the "O'Malley for governor campaign."

When Duncan told an audience of Cumberland Democrats last month that he "wants to be Maryland's next governor," he thought he was still safely in the unannounced zone because he followed that with the caution that his words should "not be taken as a formal announcement."

But an Associated Press reporter didn't see the caveat in a local news report, and so wrote: "If there had been any doubt that Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan is running for governor, there isn't now. He told Democrats in Cumberland last night that he wants to be the next governor of Maryland."

The account was quickly picked up by Baltimore radio stations, where the wife of a top Duncan aide heard it and told her astonished husband, who knew of no plans to make such an announcement. After speaking with his boss, the aide then made a flurry of calls to news outlets to bottle the story.

Why not just fess up?

Part of the answer is that the campaigns want to sustain some kind of dramatic tension over what is now a 15-month march to the September 2006 primary. A formal announcement, which virtually guarantees a day of heavy television and newspaper coverage, is regarded by strategists as an important moment. The other reason is that voters -- and often journalists -- tend to expect more from announced candidates: more command of the issues, more details about how they would govern.

"That is the point at which the scrutiny becomes higher, the level of detail is expected to be higher," O'Malley said.

For now, O'Malley tells people he is "laying the groundwork" for a possible gubernatorial bid, even as he held a lavish fundraiser Monday where more than 1,000 people sipped beer and wine and nibbled on hors d'oeuvres. O'Malley told the crowd of "a new battle" and of shortcomings in the state's schools, environment and economy.

But at no point did the word "governor" cross his lips. A huge green banner that hung behind him proclaimed only "O'Malley."

Peter Hamm, a political communications specialist who worked on the campaign of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, said O'Malley and Duncan may have calculated that a formal announcement coming too early could come off as overeager.

"They don't want voters to think they're off looking for a new job, instead of staying focused on the one they got elected to do," Hamm said.

The contrivance of a prenatal campaign is not unique to Maryland, nor to this campaign. Those running for Congress and the presidency often follow the same tortured formula. Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) recently held a conference call with reporters to announce his "exploratory" bid for U.S. Senate, but sounded very much like a full-fledged candidate during his remarks.

In last year's presidential contest, several of the major Democratic candidates set up campaign committees early on, ramped up fundraising and hired staff all over the country. But they did not "announce" their candidacies until later.

The difference is that those candidates are bound by guidelines spelling out what kind of activities are allowable while "testing the waters." Those still exploring are not supposed to refer to themselves as candidates -- "Steele in 2006" signs would be considered out of bounds, for example -- or raise more money than is "reasonably" necessary to determine whether they should run.

O'Malley and Duncan are bound by no such restriction. But they remain cautious just the same. At a recent event in Prince George's County, Duncan repeated the line that he "wants to be your next governor." Then he quickly added his hedge, reminding the crowd, "That's not a formal announcement."

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), left, and Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan (D), shown last year, have each raised $2 million -- for gubernatorial campaigns they have yet to announce.