Robert R. Neall, the former state drug policy coordinator, wants to be known as the man who can just say no.
Neall is not talking about drugs this time but about those fancy parks and projects that, he claims, cause Democrats' mouths to water.
As Election Day approaches, Neall, the Republican candidate for Anne Arundel County executive, is trying to portray his opponent, County Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus, as a big-spending Democrat who is too indebted to special interests to make tough budget cuts.
"Ted says yes. Ted goes along. Ted's an advocate," said Neall, a former state delegate who hopes his reputation as a fiscal tightwad will give him an edge over Sophocleus next Tuesday. "I can say no. I've shown that I can say no. How about Ted?"
Sophocleus also has turned up the volume on the issue that has voters' rapt attention this year -- government spending and property taxes -- by emphasizing his proposed limits on both.
Both candidates oppose a proposed charter amendment to limit property taxes, instead promising to trim the budget's fat and limit its growth through other means. The paths they would take to their destination, however, differ as much as the two men and their campaigns.
Sophocleus, 51, who used to own a pharmacy in Linthicum, has painted his economic plan with broad brushstrokes, emphasizing his commitment to preserving government jobs and the services that residents expect. He peppers his populist campaign with talk of "compassion" for people.
He has proposed loose guidelines -- a 5 to 8 percent cap on budget growth and a 3 to 5 percent limit on rising property tax assessments -- but not enough details to remove his "flexibility" to respond to an unexpected turn in the economy.
In the face of his opponent's criticism, the two-term county councilman has used the projects he helped approve during the last eight years as an asset. "If I go into an area, people point to a project, a program, a paramedic unit, a school that we got them," said Sophocleus, who is stressing his community ties.
Neall, 42, a former business executive, has offered more nuts-and-bolts details and handsome spread sheets about his economic program, which includes a 5 percent cap on yearly increases in property tax revenues. He also offers a less rosy view of the future, one that could indeed include cuts in government jobs.
In fact, the way Neall sees it, Sophocleus is a "Dr. Feelgood" trying to portray Neall as a "doom and gloom" candidate.
Neall's love of hard numbers, in fact, sparked his rather pointed criticism of his opponent's proposal last week to help senior citizens who cannot afford skyrocketing property tax bills.
In essence, Sophocleus wants to set up a tax credit program for people who have lived in the county for at least 20 years who meet age and income requirements that would be recommended by a committee.
"My intent is to emphasize relief for seniors for the first year while, through our experience, we expand the program to middle and lower incomes," Sophocleus said.
When pressed, Neall said he liked the proposal's goal, but he still blasted Sophocleus for being vague about its cost and eligibility requirements.
"That proposal is so full of holes it resembles Swiss cheese. This is a guy who taxed people out of oblivion and 10 days before the election, he's gotten religion," Neall said.
Sophocleus dismissed Neall's criticisms as sour grapes. "Whenever someone else comes up with another idea, he says it's vague."
He rebutted Neall's charge that the program could cost as much as $100 million. "He takes the worse case scenario, like everyone is stupid," Sophocleus fumed.
Sophocleus supporters say Neall's criticisms appear to be part of a negative campaign that began in September when Neall accused the Democrat of laundering campaign contributions.
Sophocleus denied Neall's charge. He explained apparent irregularities as his practice of recording elderly people who donated cakes for prize wheel games as having each bought a $25 ticket to a fund-raiser.
Last week, two top Democrats who initially were expected to lend their behind-the-scenes support to Neall gave their hearty endorsements to Sophocleus.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer, for whom Neall worked as drug policy coordinator, and outgoing County Executive O. James Lighthizer, a longtime Neall friend, endorsed Sophocleus at a fund-raiser in Glen Burnie.