Voters are tired of seeing the race card played in elections, no matter which party plays it.

Julius Henson, who consults for dozens of candidates in Maryland, interviewed for work on the gubernatorial campaigns of Robert Ehrlich and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Apparently, he wasn't picky. Before signing a contract with the Townsend campaign, he made highly offensive comments about Ehrlich. The Townsend campaign immediately repudiated Henson's remarks and refused to hire him.

You can disagree with Townsend on issues. Not everyone favors her ban on assault weapons or her plan to increase the cigarette tax. But thoughtful voters recognize that the lieutenant governor is a fundamentally decent person who respects all voters. That's why most partisan attacks on her seem to be directed at others, such as Henson or Gov. Parris Glendening. But neither Henson nor Glendening is on the ballot on Tuesday. Ehrlich and Townsend are, and there are real differences between them.

The most critical issue facing Maryland is the deficit. More than 45 states face budget deficits because of the recession. Voters must decide how to protect Maryland's institutions from this economic decline. A lot is at stake.

Townsend has issued a 32-page blueprint for the state that includes her detailed vision for education, health care and the environment. Her plan proposes a prescription drug plan for seniors. It also calls for selected budget cuts combined with an increase in the cigarette tax. Townsend would use part of the state's tobacco settlement to help protect Maryland's priorities.

In contrast, Ehrlich, the Republican nominee, has not articulated any plan to protect higher education, and his proposals don't meet the constitutional requirement that the state have a balanced budget.

Townsend helped to pioneer the state's ballistic fingerprinting program, the first in the nation, which helps police trace bullets used in crimes such as the recent sniper killings. She supported the state's Saturday-night-special law, and last week she worked with law enforcement to propose legislation to close loopholes in assault-weapon laws that allow the sale of weapons such as the Bushmaster rifle, which has been linked to the sniper shootings. Her initiative has been endorsed by Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, by State's Attorneys Jack Johnson and Doug Gansler, and by local law enforcement officials.

Townsend's initiative on assault weapons is particularly important because the federal ban on assault weapons expires in September 2004, and many in the Republican congressional leadership oppose its extension. Ehrlich has questioned the efficacy of the state's Saturday-night-special law and the ballistic fingerprinting program. He voted against banning certain assault weapons at the federal level and against many of Maryland's progressive gun-control laws.

Marylanders cannot predict what issues will face their new governor in the next four years. But as The Post pointed out in endorsing Townsend on Oct. 20: "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."

The writer is a lawyer and former Democratic member of the Maryland legislature who has volunteered for the gubernatorial campaign of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.