Albert Ceccone is well aware of his image as Montgomery County's Harold Stassen.
Shortly after the Republican entered the race for county executive seven months ago, he ran newspaper ads proclaiming "WHAT AGAIN!!! . . . Yes, again!"
Putting the best face on it, Ceccone, a 44-year-old Chevy Chase businessman who over the last 16 years has lost six races for local and national office, said he believes his many campaigns have increased his name recognition, giving him the edge Nov. 6 when he faces Democratic nominee Neal Potter.
"They know who I am," said Ceccone, whose campaigns have included his inaugural 1974 race for County Council, a 1984 bid for Congress and a 1988 stab at U.S. Senate.
Robert Metz, a fellow Republican and a development lawyer, disagreed. "He's a mystery man. He surfaces every time he runs for office, but in the meantime he does nothing."
For most of his political life, and through most of this year's campaign for Montgomery's top job, Ceccone has operated largely in the shadow of the political limelight.
But with just two weeks before the general election, Ceccone is seen by many as having the best chance of his political life, a possible beneficiary of the disarray caused by County Executive Sidney Kramer's decision to reenter the race as a write-in candidate. Potter defeated Kramer in the Democratic primary.
"I don't know how anyone can dismiss him out of hand," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner, a staunch supporter of Potter.
Republican and even some Democratic leaders said that if Kramer mounts a credible race, he could split the Democratic vote and raise Ceccone's chances of becoming the first Republican executive since the 1970s.
Others see Ceccone and Kramer working against each other. The theory is that Kramer will draw conservative and Republican voters who normally would vote for Ceccone and people who want an alternative to veteran council member Potter.
"It would be really ludicrous to presume that I am going to win," said Ceccone, but he quickly adds, "I think I am going to win . . . . I want to be county executive."
Ceccone strikes an affable public pose, presenting himself as a man tired of business and wanting the challenge of public office.
The eldest son of Italian immigrants, he is a man of contradictions: His friends describe him as a family man but he is separated from his second wife; he is tight-lipped about much of his business but volunteers that he has a prenuptial agreement; he describes himself as a millionaire real estate investor but he doesn't own his house.
He grew up in the Prince George's section of Takoma Park. His father was a carpenter supervisor for the federal government and his mother was a translator for a medical library.
He attended four semesters at Montgomery College but dropped out when he got married in 1966 and needed a job. He had three children before he got a divorce in 1978, and his youngest, a son, is 15.
Ceccone said he started out selling insurance, got into real estate and now specializes in commercial investments, where he structures deals and brings in investors.
Arden Baker, a Montgomery builder involved in a venture with Ceccone, described him as "honest, forthright . . . and quite knowledgeable about Montgomery County."
Kevin Maloney, a real estate broker and a Democrat, said he has known Ceccone professionally and personally for about 20 years. "He is hard to take seriously . . . . He is a gadfly in every sense of the word." Several people who have had business dealings with Ceccone would not discuss him.
Ceccone's 1990 financial disclosure with the county Ethics Commission lists him as part owner of 10 properties he valued at about $10.5 million, a figure he concedes may be different because of a soft real estate market.
His holdings, which he vows he would place in a blind trust if elected county executive, range from a successful shopping center in Laytonsville to a small, run-down office building in Adams-Morgan. Employees of a courier service operating out of that building on 18th Street NW complained of rat infestation and no heat or air conditioning. Ceccone acknowledged the problems but noted that he bought the property in the spring and has been embroiled in legal problems with one tenant who he said is barring the access he needs to do repairs.
Some of Montgomery County's major developers said they know little of Ceccone or his business. Some questioned his claim to be a millionaire. "Let them doubt whatever they want," Ceccone said.
Ceccone clearly is enjoying the consternation his candidacy is causing. He boasts that his campaign is low-key and bare-bones, facts that have prompted some criticism that he is not serious about running.
He estimated his campaign has raised $12,500, which includes about $5,000 of his own money, far less than the $26,000 he sunk into his losing 1986 bid for the Republican nomination for county executive. He only recently opened campaign headquarters to counter derision about his race being run from his home. And his recently hired campaign coordinator has never run a countywide campaign and is new to local politics.
Ceccone says he will win on the issues: taxes and growth.
Ceccone thinks the county, whose spending he said has increased three times the rate of inflation in four years, doesn't spend its money wisely. He favors a tax limitation measure that appears on the ballot and said one of his first acts in office would be to contract for an outside audit of county government.
Ceccone also believes the county's development problems stem from a lack of control over the construction of large housing developments in outlying areas. He said commercial development should continue unimpeded.
In the aftermath of Potter's upset over Kramer in the September primary, theoretically enhancing Republican prospects, there was talk of trying to get Ceccone to step down so the party could name a replacement. Republican leaders denied those reports, but Democrats say they are not worried.
"He doesn't have credibility. The voters said so -- six times," said Democratic Chairman Michael Gildea.
Other critics say Ceccone runs for office because it generates attention for his business enterprises.
"I want to do a good job," Ceccone replies. "I have tried to run this campaign in a gentlemanly manner . . . let the chips fall where they may."
And if he loses again? "You never say never," Ceccone said. "But swearing off politics would be like swearing off women."
Staff writers Veronica T. Jennings and Bridget Roeber contributed to this report.