Debate in the run-up to Maryland's race for governor was dominated last week by talk about the environment.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic hopeful, sought to spotlight his record in a sprawling address that included heavy criticism of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s environmental stewardship.

With Baltimore's Inner Harbor as a backdrop, O'Malley accused Ehrlich of lacking commitment to preserving parkland, improving water quality and protecting children from lead paint, among other shortcomings. "While the people of Baltimore are moving forward, our state seems to be taking another course," O'Malley said.

Aides said that the speech was intended to signal O'Malley's commitment to the issue and that specific proposals would come later in a campaign that hasn't officially started. O'Malley announced plans for a summit on environmental matters and pointed Marylanders to his campaign Web site to share their thoughts on the subject in the meantime.

Ehrlich's office declined to respond, directing reporters to the state Republican Party, which sought to shift attention to Baltimore's big-city problems.

"Aren't the streets of Baltimore considered part of O'Malley's environment?" Maryland GOP Chairman John M. Kane said in a statement. "The people of the city would be better served if O'Malley would concentrate on the issues plaguing the city and get his head out of the clouds. . . . You are still six times more likely to be shot in Baltimore than New York City."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, another Democrat interested in being governor, moved aggressively to insert himself into the debate by questioning O'Malley's record.

In his speech, for example, O'Malley touted his city's investment of more than $900 million to upgrade its sewage system. Duncan's camp pointed out that the federal government pushed Baltimore in that direction and highlighted the increased fees residents have had to pay as a result.

"Lofty rhetoric and carefully staged photo opportunities can't hide the fact that when it comes to the environment, Martin O'Malley has been a follower, not a leader," Duncan campaign manager Scott Arceneaux said. "On the environment, the mayor's record is as clear as a polluted city stream."

The Men Who Came to Dinner

A dinner hosted by the Maryland Municipal League in Ocean City last week offered a stark contrast between Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan: O'Malley attended in a business suit; Duncan wore a bright yellow golf shirt.

The two Democratic gubernatorial prospects and the Republican incumbent, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., put in schmoozing time with local officials at the annual four-day conference.

Tuesday night's dinner, at which attire ranged from Sunday best to shorts and untucked shirts, seemed at times like a three-ring circus.

O'Malley hosted a pre-dinner reception that included appearances by several of Ehrlich's Cabinet secretaries. Other guests waited in line for a chance to greet the mayor, who wore a conference attendee badge proclaiming "Martin" in bold, black letters.

Duncan, who hosted a separate reception earlier in the week at Ocean City's fabled night spot, Seacrets, appeared most aggressive in working the dining room crowd once the doors opened.

Ehrlich hosted a dessert reception immediately after the dinner at which guests lined up for pictures with him and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R). O'Malley headed back to Baltimore before it started, but Duncan hung out, shook hands and appeared to enjoy several chocolate-covered strawberries.

Busch Aide Departs

Tom Lewis, chief of staff to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, will leave late this month to become director of state affairs for the Johns Hopkins Institutions.

Lewis, who started working for the legislature in 1983, has been with Busch (D-Anne Arundel) for the past three years. He served former speaker Casper R. Taylor (D-Allegany) for eight years.

Busch said Lewis's duties would be assumed by two staff members, Kristin F. Jones and John Favazza.