Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin said yesterday that the Republican Party is using the issue of race to distract Maryland voters from other matters that "actually divide Republicans and Democrats" in next year's U.S. Senate campaign.

"The Republican strategy has consistently been to use these issues to divert our attention," Cardin (D) said in an interview after addressing a small audience of black church leaders in Baltimore. "I would hope the Republicans will show the same passion for concerns about social security, the budget deficit and the war in Iraq."

Cardin and several other candidates vying for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) said yesterday that they have been chagrined by a campaign that has, in its opening weeks, been almost consumed by racial issues.

That focus, they said, has been driven by state and national GOP leaders who have been decrying racially tinged attacks on their party's leading candidate, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the first black elected statewide in Maryland.

A spokesman for Steele said yesterday that his campaign has been focused on such issues as poverty and education and on "leveling the playing field for small and minority businesses."

But on television, during talk radio programs and in newspaper interviews, top Republicans have kept the attention riveted on race. Over the weekend, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman went on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" to complain that "there's been an utter silence in response to what have been vicious and racist attacks on Michael Steele in Maryland."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) held to that message during a radio call-in show Saturday and again Monday while speaking to students at the University of Maryland. He and others have listed the slights against Steele, one of which occurred this year -- a crude depiction of the candidate as a minstrel posted online last month by a liberal black blogger from New York.

Ehrlich and his aides have also mentioned earlier incidents, including a Baltimore Sun editorial that said Steele brought little to the ticket beyond the color of his skin; a 2001 newspaper interview during which Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) referred to Steele as an "Uncle Tom"; and an incident said to have occurred during a 2002 campaign debate at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Steele, Ehrlich and other GOP aides have in recent days repeated their accounts of how someone in the audience at the debate passed out Oreo cookies in an apparent slur against Steele -- the cookies are dark on the outside but white on the inside.

Democrats say no one other than Ehrlich aides and Steele himself can confirm that the cookies were handed out. And they note that descriptions of the incident have evolved over time.

For instance, in the first account mentioning Oreos three years ago, Ehrlich communications director Paul E. Schurick said the cookies were distributed in the audience. On WBAL radio yesterday, Schurick said, "I was standing right there when Oreo cookies were raining through the air."

Cardin said yesterday that talk about the history of racial attacks on Steele has served to distract attention from other matters. "I don't want to minimize the issue of race," he said. "But there have been no indication that any of the candidates are trying to do anything but condemn racial attacks."

Allan J. Lichtman, an American University political science professor who is also seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat, said other motives are driving Republicans as well. By focusing on race, he said, Steele can make himself attractive to black voters and throw Democrats off balance.

"He is trying to sow dissension among Democrats," Lichtman said. "It's a phony issue."

Candidates Lise Van Susteren and Joshua Rales, both Democrats, and third-party candidate Kevin Zeese said they believe everyone in the contest needs to move away from the issue.

"It's just a distraction," Rales said.

The only black running for the Democratic nomination, former congressman and former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, declined through a spokesman to comment for this article.

The Rev. Marvis P. May, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Baltimore, said he was surprised the conversation in a campaign with so much at stake has been focused on this single issue.

"If it was 1960 or 1970, maybe this would make sense," said May, who was endorsing Cardin at yesterday's event. "But it's 2005. We want to look at the individual and hear about issues."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, right, with black leaders in Baltimore, including Sen. Verna L. Jones, left, the Rev. Marvis P. May, Karen Evans and Kenneth Harris.