Former Delegate Robert R. Neall appeared to have defeated Democratic Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus in the race to become Anne Arundel's next county executive.
With about 3,500 absentee ballots to be counted today, Mr. Neall led Mr. Sophocleus by a 2,696-vote margin after all precincts had been counted.
Mr. Neall's apparent victory was an upset of sorts, since the Republican was consistently shown running behind Mr. Sophocleus in recent polls, including The Sun Poll, which last week estimated that Mr. Neall was running 6 percentage points behind Mr. Sophocleus.
Poll workers said voter turnout was high countywide, with voters focused on the controversial proposal to cap increases in property tax revenue and an executive race that was expected to be close.
"Somebody up there likes me," a victorious Mr. Neall shouted to a packed ballroom of 800 well-wishers at the Holiday Inn near Annapolis. "This is a very, very special night."
Early returns, which were dominated by north county precincts where Mr. Sophocleus is most popular, showed the Democrat well ahead in the race. The battle reversed, however, as returns from the Annapolis and the south county poured in.
Mr. Neall, who declared a victory at 10:40 p.m., thanked the county's professional firefighters for their support and promised a county government that "will be able to give government back to the people."
Mr. Sophocleus, who was supported by the county's public employee unions, declined to concede defeat last night.
In a speech before well-wishers packed into the Odenton Fire Hall, he said the results were too close to call and would wait to see what happens when the absentee ballots are totaled today.
"I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow or the next day, but I'll tell you this," a weary Mr. Sophocleus told supporters. "I look out into this room tonight and I am a winner."
Though Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 3-2 margin in Anne Arundel, Mr. Neall, 42, of Davidsonville was widely viewed as the early favorite in the race but lost ground to a Democratic party that united behind Mr. Sophocleus.
A state delegate for 12 years, Mr. Neall served as House minority leader and earned a reputation as a budget expert who could work with Democrats.
In 1986, he came within 500 votes of beating a political newcomer, Democrat and former University of Maryland basketball star Tom McMillen, in a hard-fought congressional race.
The Republican was the leading fund-raiser in the race, amassing a record war chest of $413,000 by late last month.
He preached a budget-cutting message at a time when voters seem particularly concerned about rising taxes.
Yet, Mr. Neall's occasionally abrasive remarks and autocratic style seemed to strike a discordant note at times.
Mr. Neall was also thought to have been damaged by his votes in the state legislature against a statewide phosphate ban and a law to protect critical areas along Chesapeake Bay. Both measures were a priority in this waterfront county.
However, Doris Fobare, a Severna Park voter, said yesterday that she did not view Mr. Neall as "one of the crummies" in office and cast her ballot for him.
"I thought a little fresh blood would be good," said Mrs. Fobare, 56. "And he says he's for the little guy."
Mr. Sophocleus, a former PTA president and civic activist who adopted the teddy bear as his campaign symbol and relied on an all-volunteer staff, projected the image of a politician "who really enjoys eating rubber chicken" on the banquet circuit, said one fellow Democrat.