Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Douglas F. Gansler scrambled late Monday to clarify comments made during a candidates forum at which he downplayed the significance of Democratic rival Anthony G. Brown’s military service in Iraq.

Appearing before a morning event sponsored by the Tech Council of Maryland, Gansler characterized Brown, the state’s lieutenant governor, as “somebody who has never managed anybody, never run anything.”

“You know, his (campaign) ads are about how he was a lawyer in Iraq, and that’s all fine and good, but this is a real job, and we need to have somebody who actually has leadership experience,” Gansler said before ticking off several of his responsibilities as Maryland’s attorney general.

Shortly afterward, Gansler’s comments drew a sharp rebuke from a national veterans group that has endorsed Brown, who was deployed to Iraq as an Army reservist in 2004.

“Doug Gansler needs to stop smearing those of us who served in Iraq as not having had a ‘real job,’ ” Jon Soltz, the group’s chairman, said in a statement. “It’s a horrible insult to all those men and women who put their lives on the line.”

Hours later, Gansler issued a statement saying he has “the utmost respect for [Brown’s] military service and for veterans” and pointed out that his comments came in response to a question about problems with the state’s online health insurance exchange.

“The point I was trying to make is that Anthony Brown’s only attempt to lead as lieutenant governor was the unmitigated debacle of the health exchange Web site that denied Marylanders access to health care and cost taxpayers nearly $200 million,” Gansler said in the statement.

Gansler has repeatedly sought to pin blame on Brown for technological problems with Maryland’s exchange. Brown was tasked by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) with overseeing the implementation of federal health care reforms in Maryland.

Gansler, Brown and four other gubernatorial hopefuls appeared separately at Monday’s forum. Brown appeared after Gansler and had no opportunity to directly address his comments.

Brown spent five years on active duty in the Army after graduating from Harvard University in 1984. He has been part of the Army Reserve since then.

Brown was a member of the House of Delegates representing a Prince George’s County district at the time he was deployed to Iraq. At the time, he had been attached to a civil affairs unit that he described as being responsible for “nation building.”

Brown’s Army service, including his deployment to Iraq, has been heavily featured in his television advertising.

Among those rallying to Brown’s defense Monday was Del. Robert A. Costa (R-Anne Arundel), who said he found Gansler’s comments “appalling.”

“Lt. Gov. Brown and I may belong to different political parties, but as a fellow soldier, I appreciate his service to our country in Baghdad during wartime,” Costa said. “To say it’s anything less than a ‘real job’ is insulting.”