Maryland will focus prominently in next week's congressional elections, in particular as far as U.S. maritime interests are concerned. One race, for the House, pits Repub lican incumbent Helen Delich Bentley against political newcomer Kathleen Townsend. The other, for the Senate, pairs Democrat Barbara Mikulski, who is still a member of the 99th Congress, with Republican Linda Chavez, who also is running for her first elective office. Both Reps. Bentley and Mikulski have long-standing ties with ocean shipping.

This is an all-ladies' affair and there can't be any references to the ''other" sex. Otherwise, however, the two campaigns have been as deceptive and even as dirty as some "men-only" races.How deceptive? - Let's look at Ms. Kathleen Townsend. A married lawyer with no political experience whatsoever, she suddenly rediscovered her maiden name and runs now under the name of Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend. Her publicity lets nobody forget that she is the daughter of the late Robert Kennedy. And everyone in her camp, paraphrasing the well-known Buick slogan, asks rhetorically: "Wouldn't you rather vote for a Kennedy?"

How dirty? - Ms. Linda Chavez, married, challenged her opponent Barbara Mikulski, single, "to come out of the closet and debate." We find this double-entendre, attacking a respected member of the House with many years of excellent legislative work, reprehensible.

Ms. Chavez, by the way, was (or is she still?) deputy assistant to the president and director of the Office of Public Liaison in the White House. President Reagan has publicly come out in support of her.

Why are we so interested in these two races that, after all, mainly concern affairs of the state of Maryland?

Both Reps. Bentley and Mikulski are members of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries and its Subcommittee on Merchant Marine. Rep. Mikulski has stated that if she is elected to the Senate, she will actively seek membership in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The importance of these two lawmakers goes, therefore, far beyond local Maryland affairs and the maritime industry should do whatever it can to help them to victory.

Barbara Mikulski's record in Congress boasts an unbroken string of many years of support for legislation favoring the U.S. merchant fleet.

Rep. Bentley, in addition to a similar (though somewhat shorter) record in the House, also can proudly look back at her work as one of the most effective chairpersons of the Federal Maritime Commission, which she headed from 1971 to 1975.

So, who is it going to be? A young woman, whose only qualification for elective office seems to be her father's name? Another young woman who has all the "right" friends in the highest places in Washington? Or two ladies whose many years of experience in public service qualify them for the job without dispute?

Two new, glittering cabin cruisers that never have left harbor as yet? - or two war-scarred battleships forever seeking out and fearlessly meeting the challenges of the rough seas?

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