State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, has hammered at one major theme over the past month: She isn't who you think she is.

Pipkin's Exhibit A in television spots, campaign literature and Monday night's debate is the assertion that during her nearly 18 years in the Senate, Mikulski has voted more than 350 times for higher taxes. The tally is similar to claims made by President Bush's reelection campaign about Sen. John F. Kerry's record, and to Republican charges against other incumbent Senate Democrats.

Pipkin (Queen Anne's) also points to other votes that he says show that Mikulski has been willing to send soldiers to war without proper equipment or pay.

He says his research comes straight from the Congressional Record and is a full and fair picture.

"We stopped at 354. We could have had more," he said yesterday.

The use of recorded votes to show a politician's positions is a common campaign tactic employed by Republicans and Democrats. But votes in Congress can carry different meanings and different weight, and even experienced observers of the process often need a detailed playbook to understand which votes signify what.

Mike Morrill, Mikulski's campaign manager, acknowledged that Mikulski has voted to raise taxes, but "not 350 times."

The real number, Morrill said, "is less than 100. They tend to be big votes. She has voted much more to lower taxes on the middle class and raise taxes on the wealthy 1 percent." Morrill, who said he has not conducted a detailed analysis of Pipkin's claims, said he is certain that some of the votes Pipkin is citing are accurate. "But many are phony and made up," he said.

In some cases, Morrill said, Mikulski has voted against Republican tax-cut bills that were substitutes for Democrat-sponsored tax reductions that she supported. Pipkin seems to have counted her votes against the GOP versions as votes to "raise" taxes, Morrill said.

When Mikulski did vote for tax increases, Morrill said, it was to make up for large federal budget deficits. He pointed to votes by Democrats and Republicans at the end of the Reagan administration to roll back a huge budget deficit and a similar vote in the first Bush administration.

"There are times that she has voted for tax hikes and has taken very difficult medicine, along with other Democrats and Republicans," Morrill said.

Morrill also disputed Pipkin's claims about Mikulski's lack of support for military pay raises. Morrill said that on 17 occasions when there was a straight yes-or-no vote to raise pay, Mikulski voted yes. Other times, pay increases have been wrapped into a bill on some other issue that Mikulski has opposed, Morrill said, creating a kind of "poison pill," which left her no choice but to vote no.

Pipkin said he stands by his claims.

"They want to say these votes are procedural. That's this year's spin," he said. "But we have an incumbent who has a record of voting for higher taxes."

Mikulski, meanwhile, has been taking swipes at Pipkin for working on Wall Street selling high-yield, high-risk junk bonds.

Mikulski said in the debate that Pipkin was part of a "culture of corporate raiders," without citing specifics. Afterward, she said, "he was part of a culture on Wall Street where junk bonds were used to finance the corporate raiders. . . . Everyone knows about that."

Pipkin defended his Wall Street work during the debate, saying he had "served and worked hard for 16 years, honorably and honestly in the investment business."

"In this campaign, I have tried to work on issues, and my opponent has attacked me personally," he said.

Afterward, Mikulski said that she had hoped to run a "positive campaign" but that she needed to respond to Pipkin's claims.

"He started it," she said.

State Sen. E. J. Pipkin (R) shakes hands with U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) after their first debate at the Maryland Public Television studios in Owings Mills.