For an underdog candidate struggling to gain name recognition against a Maryland political legend, it might have seemed like a gift from above.

Maryland’s 84-year-old comptroller, William Donald Schaefer, had quite unambiguously ogled a young woman in front of more than 100 spectators at the televised Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, then decided he liked it so much that he called her back and ordered her to “walk again.”

Questioned about the incident later by reporters, Schaefer cursed them out.

But in the firestorm that followed, Delegate Peter V. R. Franchot, D-Montgomery, who is running for the office Schaefer now holds, was having none of it.

“We should move on,” he told reporters who asked him about Schaefer’s latest slip up. Though Franchot, a candidate for comptroller in the Democratic primary, acknowledged that what Schaefer had done was “inappropriate” and “a mistake,” he clearly did not regard the issue as fodder for his campaign.

Such is the aura surrounding Schaefer, who recently marked his 50th anniversary in elected office, that even his political opponents are loathe to jump on his odd behavior and – at least for this era – politically incorrect eruptions.

“If you go after Schaefer it’s going to cost votes, and I think Franchot realizes that,” said Frank A. DeFilippo, political strategist for former Gov. Marvin Mandel.

It’s the kind of break that not everyone gets – just ask Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

At a meeting one evening last week of the Baltimore Jewish Council, Steele compared embryonic stem cell research to the Holocaust, sparking indignant reactions almost immediately from members of the council, state lawmakers and, most noticeably, U.S. Rep Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd.

Cardin, who is one of the many Democrats vying for U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes’ seat along with Steele, held a press conference the very next morning.

By the end of the day Steele had publicly and “humbly” apologized.

But for the often erratic Schaefer, the rules seem to be different.

Though late Friday Schaefer sent a handwritten letter to the young woman saying he was sorry he had put her through a public ordeal – he had earlier apologized to her privately – he said there would be no public apology forthcoming.

“I am not going to apologize,” he insisted.

Since being elected state comptroller in 1998, the former governor and Baltimore mayor has used the twice monthly meeting of the state Board of Public Works – until he came along, a tedious affair involving state spending – as a platform from which to sound off about whatever issue happened to be vexing him.

A visit to McDonald’s two years ago during which two Spanish-speaking employees had trouble understanding him prompted a rant about immigrants who don’t speak English.

People with AIDS, he suggested six months later, should be required to register with a statewide database because they represent a danger to society.

Though increasingly frequent and, some would say, harsh, such outbursts are nothing new for a man who endeared himself to generations of Baltimoreans with softer-edged antics, such as his celebrated leap into the pool of the Baltimore Aquarium clad in a turn of the century bathing suit while holding a rubber duckie.