ANNAPOLIS -- Bucking political wisdom that tagged him as an also-ran when he announced his candidacy five months ago, Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus has inched ahead in the race to become Anne Arundel's next county executive.
The Sun Poll found that 45 percent of those surveyed prefer Mr. Sophocleus, D-1st, compared with the 41 percent who favor his Republican opponent, former Delegate Robert R. Neall.
With a margin of error of 4.1 percent, the race is still a tossup. The Sun Poll is based on the responses of 574 likely voters contacted by KPC Research of Charlotte, N.C., between Oct. 4 and Oct. 11.
"I'm elated," said Mr. Sophocleus, 51, a Linthicum pharmacist who believes that he was helped by a surprisingly strong primary win and fallout from a recent campaign-financing controversy dubbed "Cake-gate."
"We felt it was close, and this shows that the campaign is picking up momentum," he said.
Only five months ago, most of the county's political establishment rated Mr. Neall as the odds-on favorite in the race. Delegate John Leopold, 47, of Pasadena abandoned his campaign for county executive early in the summer when a poll showed that he couldn't beat the popular Mr. Neall in the Republican primary.
A former minority leader in the House, Mr. Neall has been the leading fund-raiser in the county executive campaign so far and trounced his little-known primary opponent. Four years ago, the Davidsonville resident lost a hard-fought congressional race to Tom McMillen, D-Md.-4th, by fewer than 500 votes.
But even some of his own supporters believe that Mr. Neall, 42, erred badly last month when he convened a news conference to publicly accuse Mr. Sophocleus of attempting to launder illegal cash contributions and other violations of state campaign-finance laws.
The charges, which centered on less than $1,000 wrongly credited to about 30 residents of a senior citizens complex in Glen Burnie, may have made Mr. Neall seem shrill and overly suspicious to some voters.
Mr. Sophocleus claimed that the discrepancy was simply an accounting error. His campaign had credited the seniors with cash raised from the cakes many of them had donated for a raffle at an April 22 bull roast, he said.
"We've got a four-week push to convince some of those undecided voters and maybe switch some people over," said Mr. Neall, who has become silent on the "Cake-gate" affair while the charges are under investigation by the state prosecutor's office. "I was 18 points behind at this point four years ago. I think we're right on target."
In a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 3-2 margin, Mr. Neall must capture substantial Democratic support to win. The Sun Poll found the Republican candidate is the favorite of 70 percent of those in his party but is preferred by only 22 percent of the Democrats surveyed.
In recent debates, both candidates have been trying to portray themselves as fiscally frugal, although neither has endorsed a ballotquestion that would put a cap on property tax revenues.
However, Neall supporters are slightly more likely to favor the tax cap than people who plan to vote for Mr. Sophocleus, according to The Sun Poll.
"I'm leaning toward Neall a little more," said Suzanne Hawkins, a Crofton Democrat who told pollsters she was "undecided" and agreed be interviewed later by a reporter. "He seems to have been very good at watching how money is spent."
A two-term council member, Mr. Sophocleus took advantage of an extensive network of volunteers and his ties to local youth recreation leagues and other civic groups when he defeated three fellow Democrats in last month's primary.
He is more popular than Mr. Neall among blacks and women respondents and is slightly better known overall, The Sun Poll showed.
"I'm involved with sports and he [Mr. Sophocleus] is up on recreation," said Ken Abey, 37, a Pasadena resident, registered Democrat and father of two. "Ted's concerned about growth in our area. I like what I hear."
"You can call him up on the phone and say, 'Hey, Ted . . . ,' " said Helen S. Ebersole, 37, a Democrat from Linthicum. "He listens to people. He's seems to like people."
The election may be decided by which candidate can produce the biggest voter turnout.
The proposed tax cap and a close state Senate race between incumbent Philip C. Jimeno and Delegate Leopold in the 31st Legislative District are expected to draw voters to the polls.
"This race is going down to the wire and the final 10 days -- I don't think there's any question about that," said O. James Lighthizer, the two-term incumbent executive who is prohibited by the County Charter from seeking re-election.