COULD BOBBY NEALL be experiencing ''deja vu all over again?''
Mr. Neall, the Republican candidate for Anne Arundel County Executive, well understands this verbal redundancy, attributed at various times to Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel, two of baseball's most famous linguistic contortionists.
Four years ago, Mr. Neall looked like a sure-shot to win a seat in Congress; he lost by 424 votes. This year, he again was viewed as the heavy favorite when he entered the county executive's race but he's now viewed as the underdog. Is history about to repeat?
Almost uniformly, knowledgeable officials praise Mr. Neall's management skills and his brilliance in budgetary matters, honed during 12 years as the GOP's top fiscal expert in the House of Delegates. Though a Republican, he became one of the most powerful legislators in Annapolis, thanks to his budgetary expertise and his close rapport with Democratic leaders.
But that kind of clubhouse camaraderie and legislative effectiveness does not translate into campaign competence. He's not a glad-hander. He's not good at speech-making. This cost him dearly in 1986 and has cost him again this year.
Mr. Neall was the unofficial choice of most Democratic office holders in Anne Arundel County when he ran for Congress. They didn't like Tom McMillen, the basketball star turned national party fund-raiser. They felt he was shallow and light-years behind Mr. Neall in his understanding of the county. All these officials told Mr. Neall they were solidly behind him. But none of them would say so publicly. As the campaign approached its conclusion, all these Democrats fell quietly into line, endorsing the Democratic Party's candidate over Mr. Neall. It cost him the election.
Four years later, a similar situation is unfolding. Over the winter, Democrats in the county -- as well as Governor Schaefer -- praised Mr. Neall, urging him to give up his influential job at the Johns Hopkins Health System to run for county executive. The crop of potential Democratic candidates was abysmal, they told him. He was the only candidate with the skills to carry on the reforms started by the administration of Democrat O. James Lighthizer.
In fact, it was this Democratic support that helped persuade Mr. Neall to enter the race. He's the best man for the job, officials whispered. But no Democrat came forth to endorse him. All his cross-party support was unofficial.
Enter Theodore Sophocleus, the two-term Linthicum councilman, who capitalized on a crowded field and a creative advertising blitz on cable TV to win the Democratic primary. Mr. Sophocleus is such a sincere, nice fellow that he emerged from the campaign with few negatives. He may not be a rocket scientist, but he's clearly competent.
That was enough for Democratic officials. As in 1986, they reluctantly lined up in support of the Democrat, Mr. Sophocleus, over their private choice, Mr. Neall.
To compound his problems, Mr. Neall made a bad mistake after the September primary by launching an angry attack on Mr. Sophocleus for campaign violations involving the listing of 61 senior citizens as purchasers of fund-raising tickets when none had done so. Some of them had donated cakes for wheel games at a fund-raiser.
The controversy became known as ''cakegate.'' The more incensed Mr. Neall became over these campaign irregularities (he claimed money was being ''laundered'' by the Democratic nominee), the more Mr. Sophocleus professed innocence and dismissed the episode as an inadvertent, honest mistake. There was nothing intentional in this goof, he said.
Cakegate boomeranged on Mr. Neall. Yes, as the state's special prosecutor has verified, there were indeed campaign violations. Mr. Sophocleus' campaign treasurer has been charged with a criminal misdemeanor. But Cakegate isn't Watergate, and Mr. Neall's scathing broadsides against Mr. Sophocleus gave the Democrat a sudden burst of name recognition and public sympathy. He zoomed ahead in the polls.
So once more, Bobby Neall approaches the last days of a campaign trying to play catch-up in a race that everyone thought initially he'd win in a breeze. Given growing voter concern for the looming recession, he still might persuade Arundel citizens he's better suited to manage the local government during rough economic times. That will require a heavy Neall majority in the western and central parts of the county to overcome Mr. Sophocleus' solid support in the dense north-county districts near Baltimore, which are Democratic strongholds.
If he wins, Bobby Neall becomes the Republican Party's leading candidate for governor in 1994. If he loses, he'll return to the private sector with the eerie feeling that he's followed this route before.