IT'S A FAIR BET that Maryland voters would like to hear their candidates for the U.S. Senate debate the war in Iraq and the prospects and prudence of withdrawing American troops. They might like to know the candidates' prescriptions for trimming the federal deficit or rescuing the Chesapeake Bay. Social Security's long-term health could be of interest, and so could the candidates' views on shaping the U.S. Supreme Court, simplifying the tax code, containing fundamentalist Islamic violence, and dealing with North Korea, China or Iran. But before it's even really started, the race for Maryland's open Senate seat next year has devolved into a free-for-all focused on the question of race.

Maybe that was inevitable, given the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, an appealing, relatively conservative black Republican. Mr. Steele, the presumptive GOP nominee, has delighted Republicans and unnerved many Democrats for precisely the same reason -- the chance that he may shave off slices of the Democrats' traditionally solid base of African Americans, who make up more than a quarter of Maryland's electorate. Like black Republican candidates elsewhere, Mr. Steele has been attacked by some black Democrats who suggest -- outrageously -- that the fact of his party membership constitutes a betrayal and an affront to African Americans. As former NAACP chief and congressman Kweise Mfume, himself a candidate for the Democratic Senate nomination, pointed out in the Washington Times, "Black bigotry can be just as cruel and evil as white bigotry."

It would be naive to think race and racism would not be a factor in the campaign. Last month a liberal black blogger in New York posted a doctored image of Mr. Steele as a minstrel, demonstrating that nauseating racial taunts are alive and well in the blogosphere. In Maryland's 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Mr. Steele attended a debate at which Oreo cookies were distributed or tossed (accounts differ) as a slur directed at him. No one has forgotten that in 2001, when Mr. Steele chaired the state Republican Party, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) referred to him as an "Uncle Tom," thereby disgracing only himself; he later apologized for the remark. Moreover, a number of current Democratic candidates -- including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in the Senate race and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan in the gubernatorial race -- have, by refusing explicitly to condemn black Democrats for their poisonous comments about Mr. Steele, given the impression that racially tinged political rhetoric is within the bounds of civil debate. It is not.

Still, it would be equally naive to overlook the Republicans' evident satisfaction in keeping the debate focused on race rather than, say, party affiliation or ideological affinity, which can only hurt the GOP in a state where Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage. The Republicans have not manufactured the current furor, but they are exploiting and perpetuating it. After all, it's not the candidates vying for statewide public office in Maryland who have played the race card.

The wisest way out of the racial morass is for all the talking heads to give it a rest. Let cool heads prevail and force the candidates to talk about the most pressing issues facing Maryland and the nation. The debate about Mr. Steele, as about his rivals for the Senate, should be about his record, his beliefs, his abilities and his vision. It should not be about his race. And politicians who insist or consent in making the election about race run the risk of punishment at the polls.