Elizabeth Bobo's star had seemed to twinkle as brightly as any in Maryland politics except for Gov. William Donald Schaefer's.
The Howard County Democrat was the state's first female county executive, her name was widely known and she was perceived to be extremely popular. There was even talk of a gubernatorial run in 1994.
As election returns filtered into the Howard County Board of Elections Tuesday night, the bright star faded to something resembling a computer-enhanced image.
Voters swung half their ballots toward converted Democrat Charles I. Ecker, a retired deputy superintendent of Howard County public schools. The Republican led Bobo by 244 votes on Tuesday night, but the outcome hinges on today's count of as many as 1,825 absentee ballots.
Yesterday, political observers in Howard County were trying to figure out how Ecker found himself on the verge of winning an election that conventional wisdom said would be an easy Bobo victory.
There were theories of a strong Republican surge, an anti-incumbency sentiment and discontent with growth problems, the sagging economy, high taxes, overspending, and the county's recent budget problems.
"The best I can figure from what I see of the results is there was a restless public out there that was looking for some kind of symbol for their resentment," Bobo said yesterday during a news conference.
Still, she was confused. If the issues were growth and incumbency, she was puzzled that Councilwoman Angela Beltram, D-2nd, county government's strongest growth-control advocate, could lose while Councilman Charles Feaga, D-5th, who is widely perceived as being pro-growth, won re-election in a landslide.
"It just doesn't all fit together if you want to subscribe to the theory that the election was determined on the basis of the growth issue," Bobo said.
In addition to Bobo and Beltram, other losing Democrati incumbents included Dels. William C. Bevan and Robert J. DiPietro, both of District 13B; and Clerk C. Merritt Pumphrey, a 22-year incumbent who lost to former Orphans Court Judge Margaret D. Rappaport.
Ecker said the growth issue took a back seat to taxes and the large spending increases in county government during Bobo's term. In his campaign, Ecker often noted the county's 88 percent rise in spending and the addition of more than 500 non-schools government employees since Bobo took office.
And, much like a divine gift to Ecker, a $3 million shortfall in county revenues was projected toward the end of the campaign.
Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, which has done tracking polls for Howard County Republicans, said factors contributing to Bobo's poor showing included increased Republican registration in recent years and Ecker's strategy of putting her on the defensive about her record. He said Ecker followed George Bush's strategy of 1988 in his victory over Michael Dukakis.
"To be honest with you, we hit her and hit her and hit her, and she pulled a Dukakis. She didn't respond," Coker said. "She had the money and resources to hit back and never did."
Coker said Ecker "hit her on the left on growth, hit her on the right with taxes. . . . The big factor was that people were seeing the county growing and they were seeing the growth bring in new revenues. But, instead of taxpayers getting a break through rate reductions, she was taking it and spending it as fast as she could. That was the perception," he said.
Bobo declined to say whether she felt Ecker ran a negative campaign, but said hers remained on the high road. Ecker responded: "I did not think my campaign was negative. If the truth is negative, it was negative."
It was an upset hardly anyone thought possible in June, when Mason-Dixon conducted its first poll of Howard County registered voters. Respondents favored Bobo by a margin of 45 percent to 27 percent, with 29 percent undecided.
Bobo said yesterday that a poll she conducted along with the governor three weeks ago showed her still leading by a comfortable margin.
Republicans conceded Columbia to Bobo and concentrated their efforts in the three most conservative councilmanic districts -- the county's eastern and western portions and Ellicott City. They gained ground in each of those districts since June, Coker said.