In public forums, the candidates for the Arlington County Board say little about race: Charles Monroe, a Democratic challenger who is African American, says he would bring "diversity of experience" to the county's all-white board. Mike Lane, the white Republican incumbent, says he should be reelected also for diversity's sake, since the board is otherwise all-Democratic.

But behind the scenes, the racial rhetoric is more heated in what is becoming a competitive race for a seat on Arlington's five-member governing body. In a county where politics, and most other things, are conducted in decorous tones, the back channel sniping has raised some eyebrows.

Republican Party Chairwoman Henriette Warfield has called Monroe a "token black" and accused the county Democratic Party of doing little to reach out to minorities. Tom Brooke, the county's GOP spokesman, wrote in an on-the-record e-mail that Monroe "wears his African American status like a badge" but "does not appear to have any sort of black following."

Monroe said he found the comments "appalling," and Lane said he wanted to distance himself from such statements, but both candidates talked further about the issue.

"There's no doubt that he highlights prominently his African American heritage, and I'd suggest you ask him why he uses that strategy," Lane said. "I would say that he frequently mentions it in his stump speech, and certainly pieces of his literature are designed to highlight his heritage."

But Monroe said he is not asking for anyone's vote because of his skin color.

"I have been very protective of making sure that issue has never crept up in this race," he said. "The Republicans are the ones who are raising it. To me it's not about race. It's about experiences. Race should not be a factor."

Kevin Appel, a Monroe campaign staff member, said Monroe's literature for his first campaign in a special election in April did discuss race "because we were introducing Charles for the first time." A brochure mentioned that Monroe's father was the first African American judge in Arlington County and that his mother was the county's first black School Board member.

"That just shows that he's from a family that's been very civicly involved in Arlington," Appel said. "That's not part of this campaign because we're not introducing him anymore."

Monroe lost the April election to Lane by 169 votes.

In most of their campaign appearances, Lane and Monroe have dwelt not on race but on a range of other issues. Lane, as an incumbent, has stressed that he is a moderate Republican who is friendly to business in the county. Businesses, he said, are made to jump through too many hoops in Arlington and asked for unreasonable concessions in exchange for special-use permits.

Monroe has said he is committed to closing the gap between test scores of black and white students. He cites his lifelong Arlington residence and his civic activities, including work on the Arlington Human Rights Commission, the Arlington Housing Corporation and the Board of Zoning Appeals, as reasons to trust his leadership.

Lane, a management consultant, and Monroe, a lawyer, are two of four candidates for two County Board seats. Board Chairman Paul F. Ferguson (D), also a lawyer, is running for reelection, saying that public safety in the county has improved and that more Arlington neighborhoods are being preserved during his tenure.

Frances Finta (R), a substitute teacher, wants to become the board's only senior citizen member, saying that that community needs a voice. On Nov. 2, voters can cast their ballot for any two candidates, and the two highest vote-getters will win board seats.

Arlington County is 63 percent white and 11 percent black, according to a 1997 Census estimate, the county's most current data. If elected, Monroe would be the first member of a minority group to serve on the five-person County Board since Democrat William T. Newman Jr. resigned in 1993 to take a judgeship.

That is the point, the GOP's Warfield said. In the last 20 years, the Democrats have ruled Arlington but put forth few minority candidates.

"Their record's appalling," she said. "Our minority communities feel very shut out. . . . Just look at their 20 years of leadership and who they have put in office. You tell me whether Charles Monroe is a token. The facts are yes, he is."

School Board Vice Chair Frank K. Wilson (D), the county's only elected black official, said that Monroe and Lane are both "very fine men" but that he disapproved of using racial remarks in a campaign:

"I would hope that in 1999, about to approach the year 2000, that no politician would rely on his or her race to deliver the kind of service that's necessary to the people of this county."

CAPTION: In the race between Democrat Charles Monroe, left, and Republican incumbent Mike Lane, the party rhetoric behind the scenes is raising some eyebrows.