Long before Joseph Steffen surfaced at the center of political intrigue in Annapolis, Gerry Brewster suspected he was the political operative who wiped out his fundraising list and plastered his windshield with bumper stickers for his opponent.
Connie DeJulius believed Steffen was behind a nasty leaflet pinned to every telephone pole in her neighborhood, tarring her as a "home wrecker."
So, earlier this month, when Steffen told reporters and radio listeners that he "did a lot of things I'm not proud of" during 20 years with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., it was for Brewster and DeJulius a revelation.
The two Democrats, who in the 1990s lost to Ehrlich (R) in bids for a congressional seat, considered it confirmation that these episodes were not a trick of imagination or the brain's way of redirecting the bitterness of defeat.
"I always knew in my gut he was behind these things," said Brewster, a lawyer who lost to Ehrlich in 1994. "But somehow, hearing Joe Steffen publicly acknowledge his culpability and his involvement in dirty tricks was for me personally very satisfying."
Much has been made of the role Steffen has acknowledged playing in circulating rumors about Ehrlich's latest political rival, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), and his possible involvement in identifying workers to be fired from state jobs.
But some say that, more than anything, Steffen's decision to speak out helps ground in reality some of the murky allegations that Ehrlich's past political opponents have made about his campaign tactics.
When Steffen was asked directly by the Baltimore Sun who was to blame for dirty tricks against Brewster, DeJulius and other Ehrlich opponents, he said plainly: "They were talking about me."
Brewster said he was stunned.
"All those years of political dirty tricks never caught up with him," Brewster said of Ehrlich. "Now, finally, he's been caught. His chief dirty trickster has turned against him."
Ehrlich, asked directly about Steffen's role in those past campaigns during a call-in radio show Saturday, laughed at the question. "Those races were won by 20, 25, 30 points," Ehrlich said on Baltimore's WBAL radio. "Those races were landslides, so God knows, let's go onto something that's relevant." Ehrlich was first confronted with such questions in February, when Steffen wrote on a conservative Web site that he was known in campaign circles as "Dr. Death" and that "Part of my unwritten job description is to hurt people."
Steffen also acknowledged on the Web site that he helped give "float" to gossip about O'Malley's personal life, rumors the mayor has denied. Ehrlich fired Steffen immediately after the Internet chats were disclosed.
When asked whether Steffen was his "dirty-tricks man," the governor said then, "That's just silly stuff."
Last week, his press secretary, Gregory Massoni, said the governor did not know that Steffen was engaging in political dirty tricks on his behalf and did not condone the use of such tactics during any prior campaign. Asked if the governor owed his past opponents an apology, given Steffen's recent comments, the answer was, "No."
One Ehrlich ally, Towson University Prof. Richard E. Vatz, said he has never believed Ehrlich would condone the kinds of activities attributed to Steffen.
"Mr. Steffen has never claimed that Ehrlich superintended any dirty tricks," Vatz said. "He also implies that Ehrlich didn't know about them."
Steffen has not responded to recent requests for an interview with The Washington Post. In other interviews over the past two weeks, he has left the question of Ehrlich's role open to interpretation.
When he was asked directly whether Ehrlich knew what he was doing, Steffen told a Baltimore Sun columnist, "I'm having my Watergate moment," before adding he could not recall Ehrlich ever asking him about his activities.
Why all this might matter today, said Thomas Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who leans Democrat, is that Ehrlich risks tarnishing his nice-guy image.
"That's the problem here for Bob Ehrlich," Schaller said. "He's got a very nice personal style. But pretty soon, when you have people around you tracking mud on their shoes, your carpet starts to get dirty."
Another University of Maryland professor, Donald F. Norris, has a different take. He said he believes Steffen's activities aren't going to matter much come November 2006, when Ehrlich is seeking reelection.
"I don't get a sense that it has energized very much public opinion, except among the partisans and political junkies," Norris said. "I doubt seriously that very many people are even aware of it."
Don't tell that to DeJulius, who lost to Ehrlich in 1996 and still is smarting from the rough-and-tumble campaign. She said last week that she believes the governor will pay a price eventually.
"Look," DeJulius said, "I know campaigning is hardball. It is a tough, tough arena to play in. But you do a disservice to the people you represent when you allow a campaign to sink to that level. Those kinds of tactics drive good people away from public service and leave us all worse off."