ANNAPOLIS -- The last time Anne Arundel County had a contested race for state's attorney, Richard Nixon had just resigned from the White House, bell-bottom jeans were in vogue and "The Sting" was playing in movie theaters to sold-out crowds.

In the Nov. 6 general election, the county's voters finally will get another opportunity to register their opinions about the local criminal justice system and the top prosecutor's role in its effectiveness.

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, 46, a Democrat who was appointed to the post two years ago when State's Attorney Warren Duckett moved on to a Circuit Court judgeship after 14 years on the job, is being challenged by Timothy D. Murnane, 37, a criminal defense attorney from Davidsonville.

Murnane, who has no experience as a prosecutor, said he decided to run because he believes the Democrats' long-standing lock on the office has made Weathersbee complacent. Murnane said Weathersbee should not go unrivaled for another four years.

"No one knows the outer boundaries of what that office can do because it's essentially been in the same hands for 20 years," said Murnane, who is the brother-in-law of Robert R. Neall, the Republican nominee for county executive. "The leadership has been defined by limitations, not expansion."

Although many members of Anne Arundel's small and tightly knit legal community are lining up firmly behind Weathersbee, the race has caused a stir in courthouse circles, in part because no one is sure what the impact will be on Murnane's campaign of having Neall at the top of the local Republican ticket.

Weathersbee is a veteran prosecutor who began his career in the State's Attorney's Office two decades ago. For 12 years, he served as chief deputy to Duckett. Weathersbee's experience in managing the day-to-day affairs of a 70-member office staff and developing new programs made him the county judges' unanimous choice as Duckett's successor.

"He was trying to keep people out of jail while I've been trying to prosecute them," Weathersbee said of his challenger. "His major qualification, if you can call it that, is that he is Bobby Neall's brother-in-law."

From 1981 until this year, Murnane was one of the leading attorneys in the county's public defender's office. Responding to Weathersbee's charge, he said his defense work would be an asset because he would know "how to plug up holes" and could train police officers and new attorneys how "to beat defense lawyers at their own game."

Murnane has run a traditional outsider's campaign, sending an endless string of slings and arrows Weathersbee's way. For instance, he has criticized Weathersbee for "sloppy" record-keeping that he said has caused charges against suspects in some drug cases to be dropped, for not seeking the death penalty in several murder cases and for not being aggressive enough in starting investigations of county officials and white-collar criminals.

He cites as an example a grand jury's recent decision not to indict on conspiracy charges two National Security Agency psychologists whose son was convicted of using the family home to sell drugs. Although Weathersbee said the decision was the grand jury's, which did not feel there was enough evidence for the additional indictments, Murnane said the jurors would have returned an indictment if Weathersbee had pressed them to do so.

Weathersbee shrugs off Murnane's criticisms as the rantings of someone who does not have a clear idea of what it takes to run an office that handled 20,000 cases last year.