After vacillating for most of the past year, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall said yesterday that he is "likely" to run for the Republican nomination for governor in 1994.
Mr. Neall's comment, made during an interview with The Sun, is the strongest statement to date by the 45-year-old former state delegate that he intends to seek the governorship.
His seeming inability to decide whether to run for governor or for a second term as county executive has frustrated Maryland Republican officials and party regulars, many of whom view him as the strongest gubernatorial candidate the GOP can field. This past spring, he seemed on the verge of dropping out of contention entirely.
But in recent weeks, he has been campaigning hard at the annual J. Millard Tawes crab festival in Crisfield, the Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City, and elsewhere around the state.
Although he said his entry in the race is now likely, Mr. Neall said he first intends to form "an exploratory committee" to more thoroughly investigate the feasibility -- financial and otherwise -- of launching a campaign. He said he does not expect to make a final decision for two to three months. Candidates do not have to file formally to run in the September 1994 primaries until next July.
But Mr. Neall made clear that he does not expect his "exploratory committee" to return with a recommendation that he not run.
"This is not a negative thing. This is to try to make it happen, try to make it possible," he said. "This is not an effort to buy time and stall."
He said his campaign would center on the "mega-issue" of positioning the state's economy to prosper in the fast-changing world of the future.
If he does run, Mr. Neall would become the third Republican candidate for governor. Baltimore County Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the minority leader of the House of Delegates, and retired foreign service officer William S. Shepard, the 1990 Republican standard bearer, have already announced.
Second District Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, like Mr. Neall, has been toying for months with the idea of running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. She has asked Mr. Neall at least twice to run for lieutenant governor on a ticket she would head, but he has declined.
Mrs. Bentley also is said to be considering a run for the U.S. Senate, and she could run for re-election to her congressional seat.
Mr. Neall listed several factors he said have helped him change his thinking:
* Mrs. Bentley's continued indecision, which at first kept him out of the race, now is having the effect of pushing him into it.
* His view that "nobody's got [the election] locked up" yet, Democrat or Republican.
* And the expected entry into the race of Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, which could make an already crowded Democratic primary divisive enough to help an underdog Republican win the general election. (Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Maryland, 1.5 million to 700,000.)
Mr. Neall said that last spring, when he seemed so uncertain about whether to run, the election was too far off and he was preoccupied with the demands of reorganizing county government and preparing a budget under the constraints of a tax cap newly imposed by voters.
Now, with the primary barely a year away, Mr. Neall said he has turned his attention back to state government, where he served three terms in the House of Delegates from 1975 to 1987. After narrowly losing a race for Congress in 1986, he worked for three years for the Johns Hopkins Health System. Mr. Neall was lured back into government service by Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who appointed him chairman of a new Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
Some of Mr. Neall's critics within the Republican Party say he has been too cozy with Democrats throughout his career, and note that many of his top staff in county government now are refugees from various Democratic regimes.
Mr. Neall says he has tried to work with Republicans and Democrats alike. "I object to the word 'cozy,' because that might indicate I've surrendered some of my independence," he said.