In the race for Howard County executive, old news would be great news for Steven H. Adler.

The Republican challenger to incumbent James N. Robey Jr. (D) relishes a replay of events 12 years ago, when Charles I. Ecker dealt a stunning defeat to incumbent Elizabeth Bobo (D) and inaugurated a two-term Republican administration.

Republicans are hoping that voters will turn to Adler, a hard-charging entrepreneur who revived the struggling Historic Savage Mill, to run the county.

But as the Nov. 5 election nears, even opponents agree that Robey, whom many see as remarkably similar in style to Ecker, has few political enemies and has made his genial demeanor one of his most formidable assets.

"That's a great thing for him," said Jamie Hall, Adler's campaign manager. "It really works in his favor."

Robey's evenhanded approach has won him endorsements from teachers, police and firefighters as he seeks a second term in the $98,500-a-year office. Robey, 61, is a former police chief.

"I'd probably give him a B," said Del. Gail Bates (R-Clarksville), who's known Robey for years.

As of this week, Robey has raised nearly $200,000, with about $50,000 on hand, and Adler about $83,000, with about $20,000 on hand. During the final days of the campaign, Adler and Robey plan to spend their remaining money on direct mail, print advertising and cable TV ads.

With his white hair and mustache and comfortable paunch, Robey is still "Jimmy" to those who knew him growing up in the now vanished mill town of Daniels on the banks of the Patapsco River. During his lifetime, the county has grown to 255,000 residents and acquired high-tech wealth, but it still shows vestiges of its agrarian, small-town past.

"We've done a solid job," Robey told a reporter as he prepared to speak at a recent candidates forum. He eschewed a broad vision, however. "My goal is to be reelected, and that's all I see on the horizon."

Civility marks joint appearances by the two candidates, who often agree on various issues. Still, Robey occasionally lets his pique show at Adler's claims that crime is rising and that the county is fiscally mismanaged.

"I took a [graduate] course called Lying With Statistics," Robey said. "Steve must have taught the course -- I don't remember."

Robey ticked off the achievements during his prosperous first term: eight new schools, a new senior center and Head Start center, expanded public transit and improved salaries for public safety employees.

"And we did it by keeping the tax rate low," he said.

Greater than expected revenue along with spending cuts helped Robey wipe out a projected $18 million budget deficit that had been Adler's prime target earlier this year. Adler, a self-made millionaire who is making his first bid for elected office, still isn't convinced the economic picture is rosy.

"I don't think they have the ability to stick with a more austere financial plan," he said.

Residents can do better with a successful businessman rather than with a beat cop who rose through the ranks of government service, he said.

"Howard County needs a CEO," said Adler, a 20-year county resident. "I have a kind of intensity I think will serve the citizens of Howard County well."

Having just turned 50, Adler presents a trim, natty appearance that reflects his first career as a clothier who founded a successful chain of big-and-tall-men's apparel stores.

He sold the business in 1993 and turned to volunteer work, amassing appointments to community boards and foundations. Several years ago, he became managing director of Historic Savage Mill, a 19th-century industrial complex that Adler helped transform into a successful shopping and specialty center and tourist attraction. Supporters think his talent for making money would be an asset in the county executive's office.

As Maryland's budget woes affect county funding, "it's important we have someone at the helm who will bring business sense," said Martin G. Madden, a former Republican state senator.

Adler's repeated promise to be a fiscal conservative and not expand government doesn't always strike a chord with his audience.

"I'm concerned about the perception that there's a lot of money that can be taken out of government and not affect human services," said Anne Towne, executive director of the Association of Community Services, a group representing 125 private, nonprofit and government agencies. "I think we have emerging needs, growing needs."

In a county where neither Democrats nor Republicans claim a majority of registered voters, the two men court support beyond party affiliations.

"I choose the person I feel is best for the community," said Harry Dunbar, a registered independent who attended Adler's last major fundraiser at Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville.

Dunbar said Robey "has been disappointing," particularly for blacks. Among other things, their children still lag behind in school achievement, Dunbar said. "The community has been getting a lot of excuses and not the results we need," he said.

Meanwhile, Adler deflects speculation that he's rehearsing for county executive four years from now when Robey would not be eligible to seek reelection because of term limits.

"At this point," he said, "I would tell you I'm really prepared to win this race."

As for Robey, he paused when asked what he hopes to achieve in a second term. He talked about the need for affordable housing, then simply made promises to work even harder. In other words, he said, "more of the same."

County Executive James N. Robey Jr. (D) talks with Vivian Reid at Friday's 50-Plus Expo at Wilde Lake High School. Robey is seeking a second term.Republican Steven H. Adler talks with state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader at a fundraiser in Clarksville on Friday for the county executive candidate.