Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen has lost significant support over the past month, with an increasing number of voters now undecided, making his contest with Republican challenger Roger B. Hayden a horse race, according to The Sun Poll.
Mr. Rasmussen has the support of 41 percent of the voters, a drop of 11 percentage points from a month ago. That compares to 39 percent for Mr. Hayden, up 3 percentage points over last month. About 20 percent of the voters are now undecided, compared to 12 percent in early October.
"While they're not going to Hayden, they're clearly going away from Rasmussen, and that's not good for Rasmussen," said Herbert Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College who has conducted polls since 1983.
The Sun Poll, conducted by KPC Research of Charlotte, N.C., is based on responses of 585 likely voters in Baltimore County contacted Tuesday through Friday. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points, and was limited to races shown to be close in October.
The poll shows Mr. Rasmussen's approval rating has continued to drop. It fell 3 percentage points over the month, from 47 percent to 44 percent, and is sharply lower than the 60 percent approval rating he received in The Sun Poll in October 1989.
Mr. Hayden has a 31 percent favorable rating but remains largely unknown. About 58 percent of those polled said they had never heard of the former president of the county school board or had no opinion about him. A month ago, 68 percent said they didn't know him or had no opinion about him.
But Mr. Hayden's low visibility may not hurt him.
The poll showed that 51 percent of Mr. Hayden's support came from voters intent on casting ballots against Mr. Rasmussen -- a stronger anti-incumbent sentiment than polls have reported against U.S. Representative Roy P. Dyson, D-Md.-1st, or Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
The poll also showed that Mr. Rasmussen had the support of only 48 percent of the Democrats, with Mr. Hayden getting 31 percent of the Democratic vote. The county is Democratic by a ratio of 2 1/2 -to-1.
Mr. Hayden, 45, of Baldwin said he expected to win most
undecided voters. "They've had four
years to decide on Dennis Rasmussen, and if they don't like him yet, they just don't like him," he said.
Mr. Hayden said he could not explain why he was still so little-known. He said he thought his visibility had increased dramatically because of a recently launched $50,000 television and radio advertising campaign.
In 1986, Mr. Rasmussen swept into office with 82 percent of the vote over Robert T. Petr, another largely unknown Republican. But in recent months, the executive has faced a bruising campaign, with opponents tagging him as a big spender and criticizing him for everything from using a county-owned Lincoln Town Car to wearing monogrammed shirts.
Mr. Rasmussen, 43, of Kingsville said such talk was political rhetoric -- and expressed confidence that it would not cost him the election. "Anyone who looks at the facts will see that the substance lies with my record and not with my opponent," he said.
Mr. Rasmussen is proud of his record, pointing out it has won him endorsements from 32 labor, business and environmental groups. At the same time, he has hammered away in his campaign at Mr. Hayden for offering voters few specific alternatives.
The executive said he was confident that many of those who responded as undecided were actually backing him because -- unlike his critics -- his supporters were less likely to voice their opinions.
He added that many undecided voters would come to support him as his message was delivered in his $200,000 television and radio blitz, his campaign literature and his door-to-door visits.
But the poll results show that the criticism of Mr. Rasmussen is hitting home -- particularly on the issue of taxes and spending.
Half of those polled said taxes were the biggest issue facing the county -- compared to 27 percent who ranked it No. 1 a month ago. Education was second, ranking most important with 10 percent of those polled.
An electorate with taxes on its mind is less likely to embrace an incumbent executive who has been setting the tax rate over the past four years, pollsters and political observers point out.
After double-digit tax cuts in the two years before he took office, Mr. Rasmussen sought an increase of 9.5 cents in the property tax rate his first year. The County Council cut it by a nickel to the current rate of $2.895 per $100 of assessed value. This year, Mr. Rasmussen pushed through a tax on beverage containers of 2 cents on small containers and 4 cents on larger ones.
Mamie Barr, an undecided voter from Owings Mills who responded to the poll and agreed to be interviewed by a reporter, said she would feel uncomfortable saying who she might vote for until she found time to research both candidates.
"What's important is what are these candidates going to do for the schools, what are they going to do to keep taxes down. That's what matters," said Mrs. Barr, a Democrat.
Those who support Mr. Rasmussen say criticism tagging him as a big spender is unfair.
"I think he's got the taxpayers' interests at heart, I really do. It seems like he's got a good handle on things," said Mauro Sorrentino, 36, an Essex Democrat.