Maryland's leading candidates for governor collected prized endorsements yesterday, with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. using the opportunity to escalate criticisms of each other.

As she received the backing of Baltimore's Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a collection of 240 predominantly African-American congregations, Townsend lashed out at her opponent's voting record for the second straight day.

"The Children's Defense Fund has called him one of the worst congressmen for children in Congress in the year 2000," said Townsend, a Democrat. "He voted 100 percent with the [National Rifle Association]. ... And I think that in the state of Maryland, with our progressive politics, we don't want somebody who for eight years has an F rating from the NAACP."

Ehrlich, a Republican, earned the backing of the Maryland Troopers Association, an organization -- not a union -- of 2,400 active and retired state police officers and civilian employees.

Ehrlich reacted angrily to Townsend's attacks, saying he is tired of her avoiding a head-to-head debate. The lieutenant governor refuses to debate until after the Sept. 10 primaries.

"She's taking her shots and hiding, and the people deserve better than that," Ehrlich said.

Townsend and her backers changed their message this week to highlight Ehrlich's voting record -- which they claim is out-of-touch with most Marylanders. The shift comes after the Maryland Poll conducted for The Sun showed Townsend with a diminished 47 percent to 44 percent lead over Ehrlich.

The Rev. Gregory Perkins, head of the church group, said the alliance endorsed Townsend because of her support for increased school funding and a death penalty moratorium and her opposition to slot machines.

He then launched into a critique of Ehrlich's votes, criticizing the congressman for opposing minimum wage increases, breast cancer treatment for low-income women and the college work-study program.

"He invites the African-American community to look at him and consider his candidacy," he said. "Trouble is, we have. We don't like what we see."

Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said some of the votes highlighted by the ministers group were probably appropriations bill amendments designed to generate a record for opponents to use in advertisements.

"We can't and won't get up and respond to every wild claim," he said.

The ministers group also endorsed Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy for re-election and backed Del. Lisa A. Gladden for state Senate in the 41st District, and Del. Verna L. Jones for Senate in the 44th District. Both are running against incumbent Democrats -- Gladden against Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Jones against Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV.

Ehrlich's trooper endorsement marks the first time the group has endorsed a Republican for governor in its 23-year history.

"Today is another rejection of the status quo," Ehrlich said. "The [poll] numbers, the endorsements, the fact that police on the streets are in favor of our campaign, says it all."

Last month, Ehrlich won endorsements from the state's two largest individual police unions -- the Fraternal Order of Police lodges in Baltimore and Baltimore County.

But Townsend captured the support of the statewide FOP, winning the backing of a majority of local lodges, including the bargaining unit that represents state police.

Sgt. David Hammel, president of the association, said the unions tend to focus on pay, benefits and working conditions, while the troopers association looks to a broader range of criminal justice issues.

Members of the executive board said their endorsement was not a repudiation of Townsend, but said it reflected a belief that Ehrlich can do better.