The crowd at Republican Robert R. Neall's election party at the Parole Holiday Inn was subdued early Tuesday night, despite a sumptuous banquet of carved roast beef, piles of fresh fruit and a free-flowing bar.
A television news report of conservative Sen. Jesse Helms' win in North Carolina won the first enthusiastic applause from a clutch of young Republicans fretting over county executive candidate Neall's weak showing in early ballot returns from his opponent's home base.
But the four-man Dixieland band seemed right at home after 10 p.m. At that point, numbers from Central and South County precincts confirmed that Neall's political fortune had reversed from 1986 -- when he had to await the absentee tally before realizing he lost his bid for Congress.
By the end of the evening, Neall claimed victory over two-term County Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus. He made few promises, as he did throughout the campaign, other than to work for the good of the county unfettered by special interests.
"The next four years are not going to be easy," Neall, a former House of Delegates minority leader, told about 800 supporters. But he promised to take care of the people's "legitimate needs . . . and do it at a price we can afford."
A preliminary count of absentee ballots yesterday showed that Neall won by 59,219 votes to 56,177, although his opponent had not conceded defeat by late afternoon.
Elections board director Nancy Crawford said officials had to change light bulbs in a few ballot boxes and replace several malfunctioning voting machines early Tuesday. But she reported no problems that would change the outcome of the race.
Sophocleus spokesman Les Cohen said campaign officials were considering asking for a ballot recount because a television station's voter exit polls were so far out of line with results reported by the county Board of Supervisors of Elections.
"I feel for them because we went through this in 1986," said Neall campaign manager David Almy, recalling the 428-vote loss to former basketball star Tom McMillen, then a political neophyte. "There's no one on the planet who can feel what it's like to lose like this."
Republicans could afford to be magnanimous yesterday, as their candidates turned several Democratic institutions out of office.
A 20-year Democratic lock on the council was broken with the defeat of four-term member Edward C. "Buddy" Ahern of Pasadena and the election of Republican Diane Evans to the 5th District seat vacated by two-term incumbent Carole Baker. Likewise, GOP candidates beat seven-term Sheriff William Huggins and Clerk of Circuit Court H. Erle Schafer.
Council Chairwoman Virginia Clagett and State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee were also nearly defeated by poorly financed challengers.
Partisans in both camps agreed that Sophocleus' repeated emphasis on community helped him pull even with Neall, but that the Republican's reputation as a fiscal conservative helped turn back the challenge from the Linthicum pharmacist.
Neall, who served this year as the state's first drug policy coordinator, bluntly warned that job cuts might be necessary under a tight budget, while Sophocleus made less specific references to trimming administrative expenses.
Cohen and Almy both surmised that even voters who opposed a failed charter amendment to cap property tax revenue believed that Neall offered the better alternative for executive.
"They said, 'I like Ted, but business is business; this other guy's a better manager,' " Cohen said.
This analysis fit the reasoning of voter Ralph Cattaneo, a resident of Severna Park, which has become the political and demographic demarcation line between North and South county.
"I just feel we have the potential of jeopardizing those services such as education, fire service and police," the father of two said in explaining his vote against the tax cap. As for who is better able to run the county in a tight situation, he said, "I just felt that Neall was more attuned to the county's needs, and the other gentleman's record is weak."
Cattaneo's opinion prevailed countywide, as more than 65 percent of the electorate turned out. Neall, predictably strongest in South County, attributed his win to his strength in heavily Democratic District 2, where Sophocleus won by fewer than 700 of more than 13,000 votes.