Maryland Democrats are steaming over a new public service ad in which Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a likely Republican candidate for U.S. Senate next year, offers tips on avoiding car thefts.

The television spot featuring Steele, who formed a Senate exploratory committee in June, is airing on Comcast cable stations in Maryland's Washington suburbs, where law enforcement officials say car thefts have been most prevalent.

"This is the first Steele-for-Senate campaign ad, as far as I'm concerned," Derek Walker, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, said yesterday. "It's clear that the exploratory committee is designed to find new and innovative ways to waste taxpayer money to promote the lieutenant governor."

Steele spokeswoman Regan Hopper called that assertion "ridiculous on its face" and said Steele started working on the issue of car thefts long before he expressed any interest in the Senate race.

The ad was produced by the Maryland State Police at "a nominal cost," said police spokesman Gregory Shipley. He said that it was filmed by police communications staff on equipment owned by police and that Comcast is airing it for free.

"This was not a big in-depth production, believe me," Shipley said.

Hopper said that Steele, a Prince George's County resident, also has a personal interest in the issue: His wife and sister have had cars stolen, she said. About half the state's car thefts occur in Prince George's.

"If we can use the bully pulpit to fight crime, so be it," Hopper said.

The criticism echoes complaints about Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s appearances in public service ads.

Since taking office in 2003, Ehrlich (R) has appeared in several tourism spots as well as ads promoting the Motor Vehicle Administration, energy efficiency, horse racing and other state interests. Ehrlich and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) are currently appearing in a campaign to encourage beachgoers to travel at off-peak hours and take other steps to reduce traffic congestion.

During the past legislative session, Democrats talked about restricting such appearances but were unsuccessful in pushing legislation to do so. Several states have restrictions in place, some of them limiting ads in the months before an election.

"It's hard to legislate, because public officials do have a legitimate role in bringing important issues to the community," Walker said. "This really involves personal judgment. In this case, it's a hollow attempt to improve Steele's image."

Among the tips Steele offers in the ad: "Always lock your car and take your key" and "Use anti-theft devices, such as steering wheel locks or car alarms."

Hopper said that Steele has appeared in public service ads before, promoting the state's efforts to improve its minority business program and advertising public hearings by an education commission. Those appearances did not draw complaints, she said.

Hopper said Steele's work on the car theft issue has included collaboration with Prince George's Democrats as well as the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council. That agency was created by the legislature in 1994 after car thefts had risen 143 percent in Maryland over the previous decade.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, left, who has a Senate exploratory committee, has been in other public service ads -- to promote the state's minority business program and to advertise hearings by an education commission.