ANNAPOLIS -- Anne Arundel County executive candidates Michael F. Gilligan and Theodore J. Sophocleus have never had to go far to keep an eye on the competition.
The two Democratic County Council members, who represent neighboring suburban Baltimore districts, spent the summer politely dogging each other's footsteps on parallel campaign trails designed to boost their name recognition in areas to the south and west.
Their eight-year voting records are so similar that party leaders have assumed for months that the race would come down to personalities: Will voters be more attracted to Sophocleus, a 51-year-old pharmacist with a long history of civic involvement and a reputation as a consensus builder, or Gilligan, a reserved 47-year-old lawyer with a technocratic, business-oriented approach?
But in the final, frantic days before Tuesday's Democratic primary, several factors could upset the council members' carefully crafted strategies of building on the electorate's mood of general satisfaction by promising accessible leadership. In the wake of a Circuit Court judge's decision Aug. 28 to strike a property tax limitation measure from the county's November ballot, a third candidate, former Annapolis mayor Dennis Callahan, has tried to turn the primary into a heated plebiscite on tax relief and government spending.
Another wild card is the bipartisan popularity of Republican candidate Robert R. Neall, 41. A former minority leader of the House of Delegates, Neall faces only nominal primary opposition from William J. Steiner Jr., a Glen Burnie restaurant owner recently convicted of receiving stolen goods.
In interviews last week, several registered Democrats said they will vote in the primary for the candidate whom they perceive to be the weakest -- in order to give Neall a better chance of winning the general election.
"I'm going to try to split Gilligan and Sophocleus by voting for Callahan," said Bert Kelly, a 42-year-old engineer from Arnold. "I think he is going to lose, but the more votes he can take away from someone like Sophocleus, the better off Neall will be come November."
Observers here also are unsure how a fourth Democratic candidate, former state delegate Patricia Aiken, 61, fits into the mix. Aiken has had little money to run a countywide campaign, but her record of environmental activism could steal support from Sophocleus, who won the coveted endorsement of the Sierra Club. Others think Aiken's candidacy can only hurt Callahan because both are from Annapolis.
Geography often plays a large role in Anne Arundel elections. In 1982, a one-term state delegate from Crofton, James Lighthizer, narrowly won the Democratic nomination for county executive over two better-known candidates from the northern end of the county. Lighthizer went on to win the general election and is stepping down this year because he is forbidden to serve a third term.
The 48-year-old Callahan is hoping to duplicate Lighthizer's 1982 feat Tuesday. Strategists for Gilligan and Sophocleus, meanwhile, point to Callahan's stinging defeat in the Annapolis mayoral primary last September as a sign that he is not popular enough to become county executive.
In recent weeks Callahan has tried to solidify his image as a protest candidate who gives voters an avenue for venting their anger over rising property taxes.
And on Friday, the Anne Arundel group that collected 20,000 signatures to place the tax measure on the ballot ran newspaper ads encouraging voters to reject all incumbents and choose Callahan.
"The tax issue is the only emotional issue in this race. And we are the only candidate on the right side," Callahan said.
So far, there have been no independent polls to assess whether Callahan's strategy is working or to confirm his rivals' beliefs that voters are as concerned about slowing growth and improving schools as they are about taxes. Several Democratic observers said that Callahan has gained momentum but not enough to propel him to victory.
For the most part, Gilligan and Sophocleus have attempted to avoid Callahan's slings and arrows by alternately ignoring him and portraying him as a renegade publicity seeker who does not have the county's best interests at heart.
"He is playing to the crowd, trying through intimidation and insults to win support," Sophocleus said. "I think the people are too sophisticated for that. The people in Annapolis wouldn't have formed an 'Anybody but Callahan' committee last September if they were so happy with him."
Sophocleus, who is widely perceived as the front-runner in a close race, has offered a more moderate program of tax relief, promising to limit increases in the county's budget to 5 or 6 percent and to lobby the legislature to improve tax breaks for senior citizens and low-income residents.
A former PTA president and Little League coach, he has also pledged to put user-supported day-care and recreation programs in each of the county's schools and to launch an ambitious environmental protection effort. "I think people are looking for someone who is a good manager, but someone who will also be a compassionate friend who listens before making tough decisions," he said.
Gilligan, on the other hand, has almost studiously avoided addressing the tax issue and instead focused his campaign on providing additional housing for senior citizens and establishing a public-private loan fund to help establish day-care centers. "He is not going to sell his soul to become county executive," said Patrick Gonzales, Gilligan's campaign manager. "We are only promising things we know we can deliver."