ANNAPOLIS -- As recently as two months ago, Democratic leaders in Anne Arundel County surveyed their party's field of county executive candidates and concluded that the best they could hope for in a nominee was a sacrificial lamb. The question they asked privately was not whether Republican candidate Robert R. Neall would capture the county's top post come November, but by how much.

But after Democratic County Council member Theodore Sophocleus's overwhelming victory in last Tuesday's primary election, these same leaders have looked again and found a viable standard-bearer. Suddenly, the general election many assumed would be a formality is being viewed as a horse race.

"A lot of people were saying that the Democrat who wins this thing is the loser because he has to campaign for another two months," said state Sen. Michael J. Wagner, one of Anne Arundel's leading Democrats. "I had no idea that Ted had that kind of support countywide . . . . With this win, he can build momentum to carry him over the top."

Unlike the Democratic primary, which had many observers complaining that the candidates presented a blur of like-minded pledges, the general election promises to be a study in contrasts.

The race will pit former state delegate Neall's history as a fiscal conservative during his years in the legislature against Sophocleus's less ideological record as a consensus builder on the council.

As in other suburban Maryland jurisdictions, tax relief, substance abuse and limits to residential growth are expected to dominate the debate.

"You are going to see a comparative, issues-oriented race," said David Almy, Neall's campaign manager. "What we will be saying is you are not talking about a nice guy versus a manager. You are talking about an individual who has to run a $617 million-a-year operation."

Unofficial returns show that Sophocleus, a 51-year-old Linthicum pharmacist, swept the primary with 43 percent of the Democratic vote, nearly twice the amount of his nearest competitor. Sophocleus carried six of the county's seven council districts.

Observers here, including the candidate himself, credit this support to the two years Sophocleus, a former PTA president and Little League coach, spent working with activists outside his home district and to his gregarious personality.

Key endorsements from the Sierra Club and local newspapers also helped distinguish him from his three rivals, who already have promised to back him in the general election.

"I think the Democrats were looking for someone who can relate to the people, someone who has the political skills necessary to run county government, not IBM," Sophocleus said the day after winning the nomination.

The current executive, Democrat James Lighthizer, was an IBM executive before his election in 1982 and is forbidden by law to seek a third consecutive term.

In Davidsonville native Neall, however, Sophocleus faces a well-funded opponent who has several advantages that his three Democratic challengers did not have, including a previous bid for countywide office and near unanimous praise for his abilities from elected officials in both parties.

In 1986, Neall, 42, was the Republican nominee for Maryland's 4th Congressional District, and overwhelmingly carried Anne Arundel. But he lost in Howard and Prince George's counties and was defeated by Democratic newcomer Tom McMillen by fewer than 500 votes.

More recently, Neall has kept his name in the news by serving as Gov. William Donald Schaefer's first state drug policy coordinator.

What's more, Arundel's voters have a history of crossing party lines and voting for conservative Republicans such as Sen. John A. Cade and former U.S. Rep. Marjorie S. Holt. The two county executives before Lighthizer were Republicans who, like Neall, began their political careers in the legislature.

While both Lighthizer and Schaefer are expected to endorse Sophocleus, observers here say it is doubtful that either one will play a large role in working for Neall's defeat.

"I've known Neall longer than any of the politicians in this race," Lighthizer said before the primary. "He is a personal friend and I'm not going to go out and deliberately try to hurt him . . . . I think he would do a good job."

Neall, for his part, said last week that he was not intimidated by the numbers Sophocleus pulled in during the primary.

Although registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county by about 98,000 to 64,000, Neall said that the 15,000 independents help even the score.

In addition, Neall said he plans to appeal to voters who cast ballots for a Democrat other than Sophocleus, particularly those who were attracted to runner-up Dennis Callahan's promise of a two-year freeze on property taxes.

"I'm not taking anything away from him, but it depends on what your definition of decisive is . . . . With less than half of the voters voting for him, there are plenty of people for me to go after," Neall said.

In interviews, both candidates gave a preview of the fireworks to come. Neall criticized Sophocleus for being part of a County Council that approved large increases in the county government's budget.

"Going into a slowing economy where you are going to have to be careful with people's money, I have a demonstrated track record in that area and Ted's cost-cutting record is either vacant or of a very recent vintage," Neall said.

Sophocleus, meanwhile, characterized Neall as a politician who worked against labor unions and environmentalists and who has overstated his role in limiting government spending.

"He has all this environmental baggage with his votes against {limiting development in environmentally} critical areas and the phosphate ban. He made the teachers mad with his vote on pension reform and I think these things say a lot about Bobby Neall and the fact that he is not in touch with the people," Sophocleus said.

"He has some questions to answer and I'm going to be sure they get asked."