So far, the 2006 Maryland election campaign has been a misery. It's any Marylander's guess how awful the closing weeks will be a year from now, after an ocean of special-interest cash has flowed into the fray. Activities already have ranged from criminal to sleazy to a stunt that can be described best as juvenile silliness. Take a look.

The crime: Two employees of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee falsely obtained the credit report of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), a possible candidate for the Senate ["Democrats Got Credit Report on Steele; FBI Investigating Two Party Workers," Metro, Sept. 21].

The sleaze: Joseph Steffen, at the time an aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), was fired for spreading shabby hearsay about his boss's potential rival, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) ["Ex-Aide Asked About Ousting O'Malley In-Law," Metro, May 22].

And the silly: The gubernatorial campaign of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) dispatched a worker with a video camera to O'Malley public events with the sophomoric hope of capturing the Baltimore mayor in an "embarrassing" moment ["O'Malley Fires Back at Duncan; Attacks Distorted, Campaign Says," Metro, July 14].

While each of these examples can be seen as singular, as a group, they have a common thread, which goes a long way toward explaining why those two committee workers filched Steele's credit report, why Steffen was bottom-feeding and why Duncan's campaign videotaped O'Malley. The thread is the need to find material to put on TV.

TV rules political campaigns these days, but it is expensive, so media professionals rule the campaign budgets. To their mind, it's only necessary to remember one rule: Put the feed down where the goats can get it.

In 1998, when Parris N. Glendening ran against Ellen R. Sauerbrey (R), each raised about $6 million -- a record at the time. Four years later, when Ehrlich ran against Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, he raised $10.4 million and she about $8.5 million -- a new record. In those same elections, candidates for the Maryland General Assembly spent more than $28 million.

In 2004 the U.S. Senate election cost Democratic incumbent Barbara Mikulski's campaign $4 million and Republican E. J. Pipkin's $2.7 million -- again, a record.

The 2006 elections will blow all of these high-water marks away. With all the political races factored in -- national, state and local -- the $100 million threshold will be breached.

Two questions need asking here: Where will this tenth of a billion dollars in campaign cash come from, and how do the campaigns plan to spend it?

The answer to the first question is that the lion's share of the money will come from large, single-interest contributors. These givers will agree to part with the cash in expectation of privileged access and financial and policy favors.

The answer to the second question -- how campaigns intend to spend the money -- is equally depressing. The bulk of the $100 million will be spent on paid television advertising with a heavy emphasis on the negative. A fair amount also will be used for such things as IVBs and IVRs, brushfire surveys, CATI, completes, predictive dialers, RDD samplers, benchmark surveys and banner. (Don't know what these are? Don't worry. No one outside politics understands the gibberish associated with these polling techniques.) Sadly, some portion of the money also will be needed to pay the lawyers, political operatives and media "handlers" today's candidates find so necessary.

On a Wednesday afternoon in 1858, two men stood by themselves in front of 20,000 people in Quincy, Ill., and debated the crucial issues of the day in forthright language. Seven times that year, while campaigning for a seat in the Senate, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated, captivating and energizing not only the citizens of Illinois but those of the nation as well. Even though Lincoln lost that election, the debates helped lead to his becoming president and his place as one of America's greatest leaders.

More than 105 years later, when it was apparent that they would be the respective Democratic and Republican nominees for president in 1964, John Kennedy and Barry Goldwater talked seriously about flying across the country in the same plane to debate the crucial issues of the day.

Kennedy was assassinated before that plan could come to fruition, and it's impossible to imagine anything like that happening in Maryland in 2006. It's doubtful that even one candidate would agree to forgo the lawyers, operatives, babysitters and television gurus and stand alone.

Paul Simon said it best in 1968 in his song "Mrs. Robinson":

"Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon.

Going to the candidates' debate.

Laugh about it, shout about it,

When you've got to choose.

Every way you look at it you lose."

Small wonder that those lyrics ring true almost 40 years later. That's what happens when political campaigns don't believe in an expiration date on goat feed.