Democratic incumbent Charles M. Cave is facing Republican activist and car salesman Edward Armanas for the job of Howard County sheriff.

The last time Cave ran, four years ago, he was in Armanas's shoes, running as a Republican. But Cave switched parties last year, in part, he said, to show support for his boss, Democratic County Executive James N. Robey. Cave, who has changed parties before, said his affiliation does not affect his performance.

"Parties are parties," Cave said. "I want to be the best sheriff I can be for Howard County."

Armanas said administrative skills he has gained in the business world would help him run the department better. He said inefficiency can have tragic consequences, as it did in 1999.

It was then, during Cave's first year in office, that a clerk in the sheriff's department misinterpreted the wording of a domestic restraining order obtained by the wife of Richard Wayne Spicknall II and deleted his name from a list of people barred from purchasing guns. Spicknall subsequently purchased a gun at a pawn shop and fatally shot his two children.

Cave, who came to the sheriff's department in 1991 as the right-hand man to Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo after a long career with the Maryland State Police, ordered an investigation and concluded that human error, not a "flaw in the system," was to blame. But he has said the case led to a reexamination of how the department handles domestic violence cases and to the establishment of a domestic violence unit.

Armanas said that under his watch, each domestic violence restraining order would be reviewed by two top-ranking officers to prevent errors such as those made in the Spicknall case.

"Howard County deserves a sheriff with the highest standards," he said. "Every citizen has a right to be safe."

In September, Armanas won reelection to the county's Republican Central Committee. He is also one of the chairmen for the gubernatorial campaign of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. In addition, Armanas serves in the Maryland Defense Force, a volunteer organization that supports the Maryland Army National Guard.

In other Howard County courthouse races, three-time incumbent Republican Circuit Court Clerk Margaret D. Rappaport faces a challenge from Democrat Leslie J. Cale, a court reporter.

Five candidates, three of them incumbents, are vying for three judgeships on the county's Orphans' Court. The judges, who serve four-year terms, are not required to be lawyers. They oversee judicial probate, the administration of estates and protective proceedings. The two Democratic candidates are incumbent Sherae M. McNeal, a lawyer, and Paul L. Bush, a retired public school teacher and administrator. The three Republican candidates are incumbent Charles M. Coles Jr., a farmer and businessman who serves as chief judge on the court; incumbent Joyce Pope, who is an officer in the Maryland Association of Judges of the Orphans' Court; and Eva-Mae Lloyd, a self-employed paralegal.

Register of Wills Kay K. Hartleb, a Republican, is running unopposed for a fifth term.