Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. moved yesterday to defuse a growing furor over the issue of race in the slots debate, offering to drop his opposition to slot machines at the State Fairgrounds in mostly white Timonium.

In the past, Ehrlich (R) has vowed to block slots at racetracks at the fairgrounds and near Ocean City because he didn't want to disrupt their "family atmosphere." Instead, Ehrlich has proposed slots at tracks in predominantly black and blue-collar neighborhoods in Baltimore, Laurel and Prince George's County.

Yesterday, under questioning from black senators who reminded Ehrlich that families live near those tracks as well, Ehrlich said he is keeping "an open mind" on Timonium, a Baltimore suburb where the new governor lived until moving to Annapolis last week.

Afterward, Ehrlich said he is not actively pushing for slots at the fairgrounds. "We just wanted to attack the point . . . that one neighborhood is more 'family friendly' than any of the others," he said.

Ehrlich's shift on the Timonium track came as opponents of slot machine gambling -- and even some supporters -- reacted angrily to his claims that House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) is "playing the race card" in the slots debate.

Yesterday, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) defended Busch in testimony before a Senate committee. And the leader of a coalition of black ministers demanded an apology for Ehrlich's "offensive" contention that Busch had "targeted" black preachers as part of his campaign to fight expanded gambling.

The statement suggests "we are dupes incapable of independent thought," the Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, wrote in a letter to Ehrlich that was distributed to reporters. "We oppose slots because it would be a terrible moral, social and economic mistake for our state, not because we are manipulated by puppet-masters, white or otherwise."

Ehrlich dismissed the alliance, which endorsed his Democratic opponent in last year's gubernatorial campaign, as "part of the committee to [elect] Kathleen Kennedy Townsend" for governor.

But even some of Ehrlich's staunchest allies were shaking their heads over the governor's decision to press a personal attack against the House speaker in the middle of a contentious legislative session. "I don't know why he did it. He's got to think a little bit more," said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D).

Ehrlich first accused Busch of "playing the race card" during a private meeting Monday with racetrack owners. He repeated it in public Tuesday before more than a dozen TV cameras, a packed meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee and Busch himself.

Asked yesterday to elaborate, Ehrlich accused Busch of relying on "a race-based strategy" that focuses on the claim that Ehrlich would allow gambling in poor black neighborhoods but would protect middle-class white ones. "We think the strategy is an inappropriate one," he said.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), the first black official elected statewide, added that Busch has implied that blacks are more likely to become gambling addicts and go bankrupt if slots are legalized.

"To set this up by saying that if slots come to Maryland then every black family is going to be out on the streets is ridiculous," Steele said.

Busch yesterday called the remarks "discouraging. I've never seen any elected official, much less a chief executive of the state, make those kind of accusations about any elected official," he said.

Some Republican lawmakers defended Ehrlich, saying that Busch's strategy is a continuation of Democratic race baiting employed during last year's gubernatorial campaign, when Republicans were tarred as racists and Steele was dismissed as "an Uncle Tom."

"The speaker is absolutely playing the race card. A blind person could see that," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert). "Those types of attacks . . . divide us as a society, and people of stature who use them should be called on the carpet."

Gov. Ehrlich testifies at a hearing this week. Even allies criticized his attacks on the House speaker.