High-ranking Maryland Democrats yesterday denounced Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s remarks this week that the Democratic Party is "racist" in the way it appeals to black voters.

Ehrlich told members of the Maryland delegation to the Republican National Convention in New York on Monday that the "message" conveyed at last month's Democratic National Convention is that "if you have black skin, you have to believe one way. You have to. Or you're a traitor to your race."

Ehrlich's statement was intended as a defense of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), an African American who addressed delegates last night.

"That's the message we've seen from a number of conventions," Ehrlich said. "That's why it's important that this lieutenant governor speak to this country. That's racist."

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) characterized the remarks as "probably one of the most divisive statements that a chief executive of this state has ever made."

"To stereotype everyone who is a registered Democrat as a member of a racist political philosophy is an insult and should be an embarrassment to Republicans," Busch said.

Isiah Leggett, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said Ehrlich's remarks are "tantamount to race-baiting."

"Personally, I found it very offensive," Leggett said. "This is really over the top. They're basically saying African Americans are just too dumb to think."

Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) characterized Ehrlich's statement as "absurd and an odd reach for the governor."

"The facts speak for themselves," Wynn said. "The Republican Party has resisted civil rights laws and affirmative action. The Democratic Party has been very hospitable to African Americans."

Ehrlich said that Democrats have unfairly maligned Steele in the past. Although the governor did not cite examples, three years ago, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. derided Steele, then the chairman of the state Republican Party, as "the personification of an Uncle Tom." Miller later apologized for the remark.

During the 2002 gubernatorial race, supporters of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) threw Oreo cookies at Steele. The cookies -- black on the outside, white on the inside -- are sometimes invoked to denigrate blacks who align themselves with Republicans.

"I see what Michael has to go through. It's warped," Ehrlich said. "Mike and I have always tackled the issues of race head-on, and that won't change."

Ehrlich's statement about the Democrats is the second time this year that he has waded into racial politics. In May, he angered Hispanic leaders when he dismissed as "bunk" the concept of multiculturalism, specifically the idea of immigrants continuing to speak their native language after coming to the United States.

"I reject the idea of multiculturalism," Ehrlich told a radio interviewer at the time. "Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, you run into a problem. With respect to this culture, English is the language. Should we encourage young folks here to be assimilated, to learn the culture and values? Of course."

Ehrlich received broad support for Monday's remarks from Maryland's Republican delegates, including Audrey E. Scott, who serves in the governor's administration as secretary of planning.

"Bobby was telling it like it is," Scott said. "To assume that because you're African American you're going to vote Democrat, that's putting a group into a box. It's stereotypical. And it's racist."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) of Baltimore, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he was "confused" that Ehrlich would deliver such a statement at a time when Steele was about to step into the national spotlight. "I don't know what good the statement does except to divide," Cummings said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. with Judge Clayton Greene in January, after Ehrlich appointed the Anne Arundel Democrat to the Maryland Court of Appeals.