More than a year before Election Day, the search for dirt on candidates running for governor and U.S. Senate in Maryland is well underway.
Legal offices in Montgomery County, Baltimore and Annapolis have been hit with extensive public information requests from researchers for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Democrats who are considering bids for governor in 2006.
Other researchers seek documents that could provide grist for Democrats who believe that Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele will be the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate next year.
The requests offer a glimpse of subterranean opposition research efforts that have become staples of the sophisticated modern campaign. Those efforts are coupled with more visible activity by "trackers," including one armed with a video recorder, who are trailing the governor and several other Maryland candidates in hopes of catching an embarrassing gaffe.
A May 24 request by Chris Lee, a "public records researcher" identified by a Duncan aide as an O'Malley consultant, seeks records on Duncan's travel expenses, phone calls, declared gifts and political appointments, as well as dozens of other public documents dating to 1994, when Duncan took office.
A June 13 request by Lauren Weiner, a researcher for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, asks Maryland's chief counsel for copies of virtually every state document signed or read by Steele, the man expected to give Maryland Republicans their best shot at a U.S. Senate seat in years.
"Everyone is looking for that little snippet of embarrassing information that will be crucial later in the campaign," said Kevin Igoe, a Maryland political consultant with ties to Republican candidates. "It's really a massive fishing expedition where you throw the net wide. This has become a staple of the modern campaign."
Because so many likely candidates for the state's most prominent offices are in executive branch jobs -- and lack the voting records of legislators that might provide grist for a negative campaign -- such documents take on added significance.
So far, none of the campaign researchers have succeeded in getting their hands on the reams of paperwork they have requested.
Maryland's public records act requires that documents be released within 30 days of a request. But candidates have used a variety of means to thwart that requirement.
Duncan campaign manager Scott Arceneaux said his researchers submitted a "fairly standard" request to Baltimore in April and have yet to hear back.
"Our researchers followed up by phone and were told we would get our information only after [the O'Malley researchers] got theirs" about Duncan, Arceneaux said.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s chief counsel, Jervis S. Finney, took a different approach in responding to the DSCC. He asked for money. In separate letters, dated July 13 and July 26, Finney told DSCC researchers he would need a down payment totaling $15,139.17 to cover the intensive effort to compile the documents concerning Steele.
In one letter, Finney tells Weiner that her request was so time-consuming that the state's director of finance told him, "I'm not getting anything else done up here at all, which is a real problem when we're trying to close the fiscal year!"
Finney also attacks the request as a diversion that is "beyond fairness" and asks whether Democrats are purposely seeking "to divert our state employees from important government duties to conduct opposition research?"
DSCC spokesman Phil Singer countered that the material requested by Weiner amounted to a "conventional public records request."
"When anybody runs for public office, they're asking the public to entrust them with their vote," he said. "They're going to get scrutiny. It's part of the process. It's done by both sides."
As the party organization that concentrates on electing Democrats to the Senate, the DSCC -- like its counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee -- typically shoulders part of the research efforts in competitive races across the country. Singer said the scrutiny can be more intense in races in which "you have new candidates who weren't around six years ago." Steele, having assumed public office for the first time in 2002, fits that definition.
Michael Morrill, who was communications director for then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), said the dance between political researchers and the governor's lawyer is nothing unusual these days.
Charging money for documents is appropriate when the request involves hundreds of thousands of records, he said. Balking at turning over the documents, however, is not as typical.
"We released volumes and volumes of records on all sorts of inquiries," Morrill said. "Can they be used for political purposes? Yeah, every day. But that's part of the whole point of public records laws -- to let everyone know what's been going on."
The purpose of the document hunts, said O'Malley campaign manager Jonathan Epstein, is not so much a game of "gotcha" as a way to keep candidates honest.
"Part of our research structure is designed to put real facts out there," Epstein said. "So they can't get away with misleading attacks. We need to be ready with facts and documentation with the press. It's a battle for credibility."
How the records are used will depend largely on what researchers turn up. But one example of what opposition researchers have been finding is a packet of records Democratic operatives in Washington have been showing reporters in recent weeks.
The documents highlight Ehrlich ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was indicted recently on fraud charges.
For instance, Abramoff was on the guest list of a December 2003 Hanukah party thrown by the governor at the executive mansion. Ehrlich aides confirmed Abramoff's attendance but said he was one of about 300 guests.
After receiving an inquiry about the party, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said he discussed the Democrats' efforts with "the powers that be" and decided not to engage.
The time to trade political shots will come later, Igoe said, when Election Day is closer at hand and the best ammunition is no longer hidden among large piles of paper.
Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.