BOTH CANDIDATES for governor of Maryland have disappointed this year. Watching their campaigns, it is impossible to feel much optimism about the next four years in Annapolis. The central issue facing state government, far and away, is the looming budget deficit. Thanks to the lack of discipline of the current administration and General Assembly, and to the weak economy, Maryland faces a $414 million deficit this year and a gap of $1.3 billion, and growing, for the next fiscal year. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, irresponsible to the end, refuses to make any cuts in the current budget, which renders the task all the more difficult for whoever is elected Nov. 5; balancing the budget next year without raising taxes would require cutting about $1 out of every $9 of projected spending.

Yet both Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic candidate, and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican, would have us believe that they can balance the budget without pain, pretty much without increasing taxes -- and while delivering more services in a host of areas. Ms. Townsend would raise cigarette taxes, which we favor; Mr. Ehrlich would allow slot machines at horse-racing tracks and would tax them heavily, an expansion of gambling in the state that we oppose. But whatever you think of those options, neither even comes close to solving the fiscal problem. Both candidates, meanwhile, are pleased to promise new and better roads, bridges, schools, health care and on and on -- close your eyes, click your heels and maybe it will come true. Voters have every right to feel insulted.

And the refusal to face up to the central challenge isn't the only cause for disappointment in these candidates. Mr. Ehrlich began with a campaign that was affable and issueless; the content level hasn't much improved, and his unwarranted condescension toward his opponent has erased much of the affability. Ms. Townsend has concentrated her efforts on portraying her opponent as an extremist. Both picked their running mates with a cynicism that is no less dispiriting for being common in the political game: Mr. Ehrlich selected a modestly qualified African American man in an effort to cut into the Democratic base, while Ms. Townsend passed over a highly qualified African American in an effort to shore up support among moderate and conservative white voters. She asks for credit for whatever is good and popular in the eight-year Glendening record while saying she was absent or impotent when the mistakes were made. He claims his experience makes him better prepared to govern but skates over his many conservative votes as a congressman that do not resonate so well in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

So it is not a happy choice, but this is the choice Maryland voters face. And, all of our grumpiness notwithstanding, we believe that one of these flawed candidates is clearly superior to the other. When Mr. Ehrlich announced his candidacy, we had high hopes. The Democratic Party's domination of Maryland's legislature and statehouse is not healthy; two-party states generally do better over time. But Mr. Ehrlich has given scant reason other than the (R) after his name to justify support. His historical antipathy to reasonable gun control measures is ill suited to Maryland's needs. He has opposed Medicaid funding for abortion. He has demonstrated little commitment to protecting the environment or restricting sprawl. His championing of slot machines could open the door to crime, corruption and increased gambling addiction. Most of all, he seems to have no particular reason to want to be governor, other than that he thought he could win; that is, he has articulated no convincing goals and has described no particular vision for the state and its future. He says he would like to restore to Annapolis the friendly lack of partisanship he remembers from his days in the General Assembly -- a goal somewhat undercut, as we said, by his snideness in the campaign. He says he would clean up the culture of "corruption" in Annapolis, but he didn't hesitate to welcome to his campaign some of the less savory Democrats who chose to endorse him. And he promises to restore fiscal prudence -- but won't say what he would cut.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, on the other hand, has a track record that suggests fidelity to certain core principles and commitments: to public and community service, to education, to intelligent crime-fighting, to the environment and to business development. Although she is the niece of President John F. Kennedy and the eldest child of Robert F. Kennedy, she has not waited for political plums to fall in her lap but has learned the mechanics of government from the ground up. A lawyer who, with her professor husband, raised four daughters, Ms. Townsend early on worked for the state Appropriations Committee and the state attorney general in Annapolis. When she lost a race for Congress in 1986, she did not abandon public service but began working for the state Department of Education, where she created the first program in the nation requiring high school students to perform community service to graduate. She then worked in the Clinton Justice Department before being elected in 1994 to the first of two terms as lieutenant governor.

While we complain about her motives in selecting a running mate, we also are quick to point out that the person she chose for her ticket, retired admiral Charles R. Larson, is a man of impressive depth and experience; his strength suggests that Ms. Townsend is secure enough to surround herself with able staff and department heads. And while we complain about her lack of candor on the budget, there is no question that she has offered more details and demonstrated far greater familiarity with the challenge than her opponent. Her campaign platform, like Mr. Ehrlich's, is full of promises that will be difficult or impossible to keep, but hers at least reflects priorities that give reason to hope she will protect Maryland's poor and vulnerable as much as possible when it comes to making the cuts. The next year, and quite possibly the next four years, will not be an easy time to be governor. Of the two candidates, Ms. Townsend has the experience and the inner compass to better handle the challenges ahead.