The campaign promises keep piling up: smaller classes for elementary students, money to repair aging schools and full funding of a state aid formula that will pump millions into Maryland's public schools.

But then, so does the state's debt.

In the face of a looming $1.7 billion deficit, the candidates for governor have pledged to protect education from budget cuts and proceed with increases approved last spring by the General Assembly.

But as Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend repeat their promises across the state, they have remained studiously vague about how they can deliver on them.

"Everybody knows that in the short term, neither one of these candidates as governor can take on a lot of positive policy initiatives," said James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland. "Both candidates are being as vague as possible about that for fear of alienating any constituency."

Education is a touchstone of almost every campaign in Maryland, thanks to an unusually well-educated electorate and the state's longtime support of and involvement in public schools.

Though some recent polls suggest that the budget may have trumped education as a voter concern this year, political scientist Herb Smith at McDaniel College said, that may have more to do with how the questions are being asked. "It's a perennial issue, always one of the top three," he said.

Support of public schools "is so big an issue that it's already won," a state higher-education official said. "They can't win the election without it."

He pointed to the fact that both candidates pledged support for the Thornton plan, which would increase the state's contribution to public schools by $1.3 billion over six years through a formula designed to level the differences between the state's richest and poorest school districts. Both also support money for reducing class sizes and improving school buildings.

But with unanimity on the need for increased school support, the campaign debate returned again to the budget. Ehrlich, a Baltimore County congressman, has suggested funding the Thornton plan through revenue from legalized slot machines. Townsend, the lieutenant governor, opposes slots and says she would instead look for cuts from other parts of the budget while prioritizing schools funding.

Townsend has aggressively pushed education issues to the forefront, touting her background as a former Maryland Department of Education staff member who first championed the state's volunteer service requirement for high school graduates. Her wish list of initiatives, though potentially costly, is exhaustive -- Internet wiring for every classroom, more after-school programs for children in troubled neighborhoods, the promotion of "character education" curricula that teach citizenship and responsibility.

Ehrlich, meanwhile, offers a shorter and far less detailed list, mostly pledging support for increased funding and reconstruction of aging schools. In recent speeches, he has promised to launch a "Thornton II" panel to study ways to improve school curriculum and student performance.

Both candidates have expressed support for charter schools, which have thus far failed to gain ground in Maryland. Ehrlich has said he supports vouchers to allow parents to remove their children from failing public schools and send them to private schools, but he has not given them a prominent role in his campaign. Townsend opposes vouchers.

Another perennial issue in Maryland education, the "accountability" measures imposed on public schools, receded this year after state officials brought an end to the influential but controversial Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. The high-stakes MSPAP exams, used to measure how well schools are teaching their students, will be replaced next year with more traditional standardized tests required under a new federal law.

In fact, education has gotten its biggest workout this campaign cycle in a more negative sense, with Townsend challenging Ehrlich's track record on school support in television commercials that attempt to brand him as a conservative extremist.

As Ehrlich gained in the polls last month, Townsend aired ads declaring that she had "fought for record investment in our schools" -- referring to the $1.2 billion increase in funding under Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) -- and accused Ehrlich of voting to cut student loans and school lunches and to eliminate the Department of Education.

Ehrlich supporters said the ads distorted the congressman's record. Ehrlich's votes, they noted, were part of larger attempts to give more power to the states, shifting funding for such programs into block grants to state government. He points to his votes for the No Child Left Behind Act last year, which brought billions more to schools with children living in poverty.

The state's largest teachers union -- the Maryland State Teachers Association, which strongly supported Glendening's campaigns and received increased bargaining powers in return -- has spent at least $50,000 in radio ads similarly boosting Townsend and attacking Ehrlich.

Higher education typically has registered as a lower priority than public schools with Maryland voters, political observers say.

But this year, it is emerging as a more prominent issue. Without offering specifics, Ehrlich suggested that higher education might be one area ripe for cuts.

Townsend's campaign released an analysis alleging that Ehrlich's plan would equate to at least a $42 million cut to state campuses and financial aid programs. Ehrlich's campaign has denied that cuts to higher education would go that deep.