ANNAPOLIS -- Aided by weakening support for his Republican opponent, Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus has widened his lead in the Anne Arundel County executive race, according to The Sun Poll.
Mr. Sophocleus was preferred by 42 percent of likely voters. His opponent, Robert R. Neall, was the choice of 36 percent, with about 22 percent undecided. Mr. Sophocleus' lead is up two points over last month, when The Sun Poll showed him ahead of Mr. Neall by a 45-41 margin.
The poll, conducted by KPC Research of Charlotte, N.C., has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. The results were based on a random sampling of 600 likely voters contacted by telephone last week.
"I'm glad to see that we're moving up in the polls, but it's still close," said Mr. Sophocleus, 51, a licensed pharmacist and Linthicum resident."Six points is nothing to get complacent over, but I think it's a sign our campaign has momentum."
David Almy, Mr. Neall's campaign manager, said Friday night that the Neall campaign is not discouraged by the result.
The most interesting number, he said, is the "undecided being so large so late in the game."
"It's anyone's race at the moment," Mr. Almy said. "We're in a fight to the last man Tuesday evening and we're going to pull it off."
While the large number of undecided voters leaves the race still in doubt, a Sophocleus victory seemed almost unimaginable six months ago when Mr. Neall, 42, a Davidsonville resident, was hailed as the odds-on favorite in the race.
A state delegate for 12 years until he ran for the U.S. Congress and lost in a 424-vote squeaker to Tom McMillen in 1986, Mr. Neall seemed to have all the right credentials for a county which hadn't elected a Democrat as county executive until O. James Lighthizer was voted into office eight years ago.
Mr. Neall is a former vice president for Johns Hopkins Health System and earned the title of Maryland's first "drug czar" as chairman of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's drug and alcohol abuse commission. Though he got a late start in the county executive race, he has proved himself an able fund-raiser and leads Mr. Sophocleus in campaign contributions by more than $130,000.
In a year of growing tax rebellion, Mr. Neall was able to flaunt his reputation as a budget "slasher" from his days on the House Appropriations Committee and as House minority leader.
With the current public distaste for incumbents, a Republican would have seemed to be in a better position than Mr. Sophocleus, a councilman in an exclusively Democratic administration.
"If you had told me these [poll] results a month ago, I'd have been surprised but not today," said state Sen. Michael J. Wagner, D-Anne Arundel.
"The little people relate to Ted even though he's an incumbent. Ted's fallen through the cracks, and he's lucky as hell. It's just wild," he said.
Indeed, fellow Democrats believe voters will support Mr. Sophocleus simply because he is more personable than Mr. Neall.
A balding, chubby figure with an easygoing style and Highlandtown roots, Mr. Sophocleus entered politics on the most basic, grass-roots level as a PTA president and youth football coach.
In joint appearances with his opponent, Mr. Sophocleus has emphasized his compassion and knowledge of the workings of county government.
Mr. Neall has stressed his willingness to cut spending and criticized Mr. Sophocleus' role on a County Council that "rubber-stamps" Mr. Lighthizer's budgets.
While Mr. Sophocleus has taken the warm and fuzzy ground -- adopting the teddy bear as his campaign symbol, for instance -- Mr. Neall has sometimes seemed harsh and even petulant in debate. In an appearance at the Odenton Fire Hall, the Republican suggested that a new county detention center should be located "next to Ted." Intended as a joke, the remark fell flat with the audience.
"Bob can be just as warm and affectionate and engaging one on one as anyone I know," said state Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, a longtime Neall ally. "But he may be reserved in public appearances. I guess people like to have warm feelings toward their public officials."
Taxes were the No. 1 issue on the minds of likely voters, a change from three weeks ago when it placed third behind development and drugs and crime, The Sun Poll found.
Respondents who agreed to be interviewed afterward noted that while how government spends taxpayer dollars was important, it was rarely the only reason behind their decision to support a county executive candidate.
"I was a big Neall supporter in the last election, but I've been disappointed in his demeanor, the way he's conducted himself in the campaign," said Alice Anne Hall, 52, a Millersville resident and registered Republican.
Audrey Huss, 66, a Glen Burnie Democrat, said Mr. Sophocleus' support of programs for senior citizens convinced her to support him.
"I've heard it said, 'He's a druggist. What does he know about politics?' Well, maybe regular people should be elected to office sometimes," she said.