Late last night, after the roast beef had been carved to the bone and the vegetables and dip completely picked over, supporters of Republican Robert R. Neall were still sweating it out in a back room where election results were coming in.
Their candidate, once considered a shoe-in for Anne Arundel County executive, had been trailing in pre-election polls and the race was promising to be close. Too close.
But by 10:20 p.m., with 115 of 133 precincts reporting, Neall for the first time squeaked past Democrat Theodore J. Sophocleus, a two-term County Councilman from Linthicum.
As the realization of victory swept through the packed room of well-wishers at an Annapolis Holiday Inn, the band struck up the "Washington and Lee Swing" and Del. John Gary, R-Anne Arundel, was nearly overcome with excitement.
"Hot doggie," Gary exclaimed. "I think we've got a brand new county executive."
After all precincts reported, Neall led Sophocleus, 57,576 to 54,880, 51 percent to 49 percent, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 3-to-2 margin in the county.
Even with more than 3,300 absentee ballots uncounted, it seemed unlikely that Sophocleus could overtake Neall. Last night, however, Sophocleus refused to concede the race in an election which drew about 64 percent of the registered voters.
Not many people believed it would turn out this way.
Until last night, observers gave the edge to Sophocleus, 51, a pharmacist who ran a populist campaign that stressed "compassion."
By comparison, Neall, 42, a former House of Delegates minority leader and state drug policy coordinator, had been called an elitist who ran a "negative" campaign.
Even GOP insiders worried that voters would see Neall as a mud-slinger after he accused Sophocleus of campaign fraud in September. Sophocleus was cleared but his campaign treasurer was charged with a misdemeanor for incorrectly recording donated cakes as ticket sales.
By yesterday morning, supporters said, Neall was anticipating defeat and feeling low.
But by late last night, Neall's campaign manager, David Almy, was decidedly upbeat. "It goes to show that the conventional wisdom has to be revised daily," Almy said.
Neall soon emerged to the cheers of about 1,000 well-wishers and acknowledged that the night had been a long roller coaster ride.
"You haven't lived 'til you've turned on the television and seen your old friend Ted Venetoulis declaring you dead at 8:30," Neall told the crowd, referring to the former Baltimore County executive-turned-political commentator who had earlier predicted a Neall defeat.
Declaring his a victory of individual voters over special interests, Neall said he was more impressed that "somewhere in this room is the only special interest group that worked for me -- the professional firefighters" than by winning.
"We did it the hard way, by not promising, by not bartering, by not telling them what they wanted to hear so we could give the government back to the people," continued Neall, who outspent Sophocleus and garnered the support of influential Annapolis lobbyist Bruce Bereano.
Neall said his next four years as county executive would be difficult, adding that his top priority will be to "get through the [economic] slow down and do it all at a price we can afford."
Meanwhile, up the road in the Odenton fire hall, Sophocleus gave what sounded very much like an concession speech to hundreds of supporters. His wife and daughter stood behind him, both with tears in their eyes.
Sophocleus said he would wait until the absentee ballots are counted today or tomorrow before deciding whether to concede.
"I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow or the next day. It's that close. But I look around this room tonight," he told his hopeful supporters, "and I'm a winner."
Afterward, Steve LaPlanche, a deputy sheriff from Pasadena, climbed onto the podium to hug Sophocleus. The men both had tears in their eyes.
Sophocleus had come so far, running better than anyone imagined when he declared his candidacy last spring.
LaPlanche told Sophocleus that he would help him if he ever ran for office again. LaPlanche later explained that the night was an emotional one for him because his father, Ernest LaPlanche Sr., had been a strong Sophocleus backer. The elder LaPlanche died of cancer three weeks ago, days after casting an absentee ballot for Sophocleus.
Although he built a strong base in the working class neighborhoods of northern Anne Arundel, Sophocleus did not appear to have as much countywide appeal as Neall, who lost a 1986 congressional bid by less than 500 votes.
Sophocleus needed to capture more votes in Glen Burnie than he did in order to have bested Neall, a Davidsonville resident with strong appeal in southern Anne Arundel, said state Sen. Michael Wagner, D-Anne Arundel.
In the County Council races, voters ousted a Democratic incumbent and elected two Republicans, ending the GOP's 20-year absence from the seven-member body.