Top aides to Maryland's incumbent Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes charged last week that GOP candidate Lawrence J. Hogan has "played right off" a media campaign of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) that they say "misrepresents and distorts" Sarbanes' positions on issues.

In the opening attack of the fall election campaign, Sarbanes' press secretary Bruce Frame said Hogan's ads are similar to those aired by NCPAC 18 months ago and that the similarity is "very suspicious."

The sentiment was echoed by Leon Billings, director of the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and other Sarbanes' staffers. They say that some of Hogan's campaign themes -- that Sarbanes is "too liberal" for Maryland, for example -- are identical to NCPAC's original attacks.

The NCPAC ads, originally aired last year, backfired, according to Sarbanes' aides, by adding momentum to the incumbent Democrat's campaign and drawing financial contributions more than a year before the election. A new set of NCPAC ads, which combine anti-Sarbanes and pro-Hogan messages, began last month.

"At one time we all viewed it that we faced two opponents, the Republican candidate and NCPAC," said Sarbanes' campaign aide Peter Marudas. "That is no longer the case. They're clearly one. They are clearly hand-in-glove."

Hogan maintains that there is no coordination between his campaign and NCPAC, although the two groups have run pro-Hogan ads on alternate weeks during the past month.

Hogan has said he hopes NCPAC would stay out of the race, but when NCPAC recently launched its new ad campaign he did not object, saying he welcomes support from any group that says "nice things" about him.

That inspired a retort from Sarbanes' campaign manager Jim Smith, who asked, "What does it mean that Larry Hogan welcomes any group that says nice things about him? . . . does it mean that he'll take support from groups like the Ku Klux Klan or the American Nazi Party if they say nice things about him?"

George Nesterczuk, Hogan's campaign manager, commented, "We're aware that the Democrats want to make NCPAC an issue. We are trying to run this campaign on the basis of Paul Sarbanes and Larry Hogan. NCPAC has a legitimate right to be on the air, and we don't want to tamper with that. I would hope that soon they would let us proceed with our own campaign. Once they feel they've got their message across we hope they will gracefully bow out."

Some Democratic strategists say the voters no longer buy the NCPAC message, which will work in Sarbanes' favor.

"The NCPAC battle-ax has turned into a boomerang," said Ann Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee. "Most Americans take their votes very seriously. They don't want to be manipulated by some out-of-state hustlers with a post office box return address and a computer."