Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen's popularity has plummeted over the past year, but he still holds a commanding lead over his largely unknown Republican challenger, Roger B. Hayden.
Mr. Rasmussen's approval rating has plunged 13 percentage points to 47 percent since a Sun Poll taken last October, making him less popular in the county than Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The proportion of residents who view him unfavorably climbed 17 percentage points to 30 percent.
Nevertheless, 52 percent of those polled were leaning toward voting for Mr. Rasmussen, compared to 36 percent for Mr. Hayden. About 12 percent of the respondents were undecided. In 1986, Mr.Rasmussen swept into office with 82 percent of the vote over Republican Robert T.Petr
The Sun Poll, with a margin of error of 4.1 percent, is based on the responses of 579 likely voters in Baltimore County contacted by KPC Research of Charlotte, N.C., between Oct. 4 and last Thursday.
Mr. Rasmussen said the numbers were the result of a bruising primary election in which he had no challenger but faced attacks from County Council candidates. They labeled him a big spender for using a chauffeur-driven, county-owned Lincoln Town Car and having an 11-member Office of Communications.
"We didn't have a primary so we didn't respond to what I consider meaningless political rhetoric," Mr. Rasmussen said.
He predicted that his popularity would climb in the weeks ahead as he launched a blitz of television and radio advertisements aimed at getting across to voters what his administration had accomplished.
The poll showed that Mr. Rasmussen has his work cut out for him.
"I don't think he's doing a very good job," said Ron Knouse, 46, ofReisterstown, who responded to the poll and agreed to be interviewed.
Mr. Knouse said he would probably vote for Mr. Hayden -- even though he admitted knowing nothing about him -- and said it would be a vote cast against Mr. Rasmussen.
"The schools are crowded; the roads are bad. I've just totally lost confidence in him," Mr. Knouse said.
Others, however, gave Mr. Rasmussen good reviews. Sophia Gunzelman, 39, of Cockeysville said she was pleased with the job he had done in upgrading roads and providing good schools and libraries for her community.
"It seems like there has been a lot of good changes" during the Rasmussen administration, she said.
Mr. Hayden remains an unknown commodity to most residents. About 69 percent of those polled either had no opinion of the former school board president or had never heard of him.
Republicans say that despite Mr. Hayden's low profile, he is the best candidate possible because he is not a politician and he has worked in the community.
"The point is now we have to get our message out about who he is," said Richard Bennett, chairman of the county Republican Party.
Mr. Hayden said he would be doing this with a series of radio and newspaper advertisements, with "Democrats for Hayden" offices opening in Dundalk, Essex and Catonsville and with "an ocean" of campaign signs throughout the county.
He also will need to pick up considerable Democratic support in a county where GOP voters are outnumbered by a ratio of 2 1/2 -to-1. The poll showed 28 percent of Democrats leaning toward Mr. Hayden.
Despite the increasing discontent with Mr. Rasmussen, the poll also showed that most people were not upset with how the government was working. They just don't want it to cost so much.
When asked to grade the performance of the county government, 79 percent gave it a "C" or better, and only 7 percent failed it. But 27 percent ranked taxes as the biggest county issue, well ahead of drugs and crime, education and growth.
That is a dramatic turnaround from last October's Sun Poll, when residents ranked drugs and crime as the county's No. 1 problem, with education and growth in the second and third places. Taxes didn't even make the top five.
Mr. Rasmussen has focused much of his campaign on taxes.
His brochures and radio ads highlight his lobbying in Annapolis to reduce reliance on the property tax; his leadership in passing a law to limit increases in property tax assessments to 4 percent a year; and a budget that increased spending this year by only 3.8 percent, below the rate of inflation.
But concerns about government spending are still evident.
In Dundalk, Donald Mason promised to reduce spending as he beat a Rasmussen-backed County Council incumbent by a 2-to-1 margin after waging a campaign that focused on rising property taxes. His "Taxmussen" bumper stickers are still out in the community.
In Ruxton, retired businessman John D. O'Neill Sr. gathered more than 10,000 signatures on a petition to limit increases in property tax revenues to 2 percent a year and then won a highly publicized court battle with the Rasmussen administration to place the measure on the November ballot.
Mr. Hayden's supporters say such developments have helped make it a horse race, noting that almost half of those polled are either voting for Mr. Hayden or still undecided.
"There are a lot of people out there who don't like Rasmussen, and they'll vote for anyone but him," said Delegate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County. "I don't think there's any question but that the momentum now favors Roger and that Dennis Rasmussen is riding on a greased banana."