ANNAPOLIS, OCT. 31 -- Robert R. Neall says he knows a lot about "mealy mouthed" politicians. He knows their "lack of moral courage" caused the Maryland General Assembly, where he served for 12 years, to make "bad public policy." He knows their attention to opinion polls has "sullied" the name of Congress, an organization he once tried to join.

Mostly, Neall knows he does not want to be one of them, even if it costs him an election he wants to win -- badly.

As the Republican nominee for Anne Arundel County executive, tough-talking Neall is making his reputation for unvarnished honesty the cornerstone of his campaign. He has warned voters that "you will not always be happy with me," unapologetically stated positions he knows are at odds with what his audience wants to hear and lashed out at his opponent, despite his advisers' warnings about negative campaigning.

"What it boils down to is I believe people are entitled to the truth, to know up front what I am going to do," Neall, 42, said. "I feel like the last 16 years have prepared me to do a good job. Whether people buy that or not is an entirely different story."

Neall's independence, his rock-solid principles and his keen intellect are the traits that made him one of the most respected members of the Maryland House of Delegates, where he was Republican leader.

His expertise on budget matters also made him a confidant of some of the state's most powerful Democrats, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who made Neall his first drug policy coordinator.

In the county executive's race, Neall's strong credentials have won the former banker many admirers, particularly in the county's business community. And he has raised a record $413,000 in contributions.

"I think what Bob Neall has to offer the county is beyond partisan considerations," Bruce Bereano, an Annapolis lobbyist and Democratic fund-raiser, said in explaining why he is helping Neall. "We're talking about who is the most experienced, the most able, the most visionary."

But observers say Neall's aversion to playing to a crowd and his natural distaste for campaigning has cost him crucial support, particularly because his opponent, County Council member Theodore J. Sophocleus (D), is running on his warm personality and commitment to "consensus" politics.

"For whatever reason, Bob has not gone after the Democratic constituencies -- the senior citizens, the recreation people -- that a Republican in this county has to win to be successful," one prominent Republican commented. "He is the technical guy, and that's it."

Partially as a result, a race that Neall was widely expected to run away with has become a down-to-the-wire contest.

Beloved by his House colleagues as much for his colorful wit as his way with numbers (at five-foot-seven, short jokes are his specialty), he is battling an image as an imperious technocrat.

"I don't think Bobby has emphasized the wooing of the average guy on the street. In many respects he is being viewed as a blueblood," said state Del. Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel). "In reality, he is just a kid who grew up in Davidsonville and made good, but he can come across like a button-down, three-piece suit kind of guy."

Neall the campaigner is offering voters the fiscal conservatism that helped him win a state House seat at age 26.

His message is simple: Now that "the booming '80s are over," the county needs a leader who is "tight with a buck" and not afraid to make difficult decisions, such as cutting jobs.

As evidence of his tenacious nature, Neall proudly points to his role in overhauling the state's employee pension system in 1984.

That effort made him a pariah with teachers and labor unions. Neall cites the battle as a key factor in his narrow loss to Tom McMillen in his 1986 congressional race.

"It is the classic difference between {Sophocleus} and me. Ted wants so much to say yes, but sometimes you have to say no," Neall said. "If you spend your political life bowing to the shrill, vocal special interests, there are a lot of people who are left out of the process and not represented."

On the stump, Neall has demonstrated his willingness to defy constituent pressure.

At a recent candidates' forum he was asked about a road that most people in the room opposed.

But rather than tell the audience what it wanted to hear or sugar-coat his answer, Neall said, "If I am elected, make no mistake about it, that road will be built."

Sophocleus, by contrast, explained that although he "believes the road will be built," he would appoint a task force to review its design.

Neall's "just-the-facts" answer cost him at least one vote, that of Severna Park resident Carol Simer, a lifelong Republican. Simer said that although she admires Neall's courage, "I think he is the kind of person who once he makes up his mind, that's it, end of discussion."

Admirers say the zeal with which Neall pursues his convictions demonstrates his integrity, but they worry he will not get the chance to put them into practice unless he becomes more flexible.

Former representative Marjorie Holt (R), who recruited Neall to run for her seat before she announced her retirement in 1985, said she often advised him "that he could soften up a bit" and try to bluff his way through sticky situations.

"His reponse is he smiles and thanks you very much and goes on the way he wants to go," Holt said with obvious affection. "I would say it means he is dedicated to his principles, but it hurts him politically, there is no doubt about it."

Few who have worked with Neall doubt that he is qualified to be Anne Arundel's fourth county executive. A typical high school student and University of Maryland graduate with a degree in government, Neall largely taught himself to master the state's finances, although he credits his father, the owner of a country store, with teaching him "the importance of watching your nickels and dimes."

Neall's campaign manager, David Almy, said there is little mystery behind his boss's inability to share his impish side with voters. The simple truth, he said, is that Neall's intense dislike of campaigning has obscured much of his natural warmth.

"He is less comfortable with kissing babies on the campaign trail than he is at home or doing work behind closed doors. And because Ted is good at that, it has been a factor," Almy said. "Bob hits things with a meat cleaver sometimes. And some people appreciate that a great deal, so what we end up with is a group of ardent supporters and a group of ardent detractors. The hope is we have more of the former.

"We have attempted to sell the qualifications and the performance because in the end, people must ask themselves whether they want results or a smile," Almy said.