In Howard County's most closely watched race, Republican state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader appeared to have narrowly staved off efforts by Democratic veteran council member C. Vernon Gray to oust her from the District 13 Senate seat.

With 1,489 absentee ballots sent out, however, the Schrader camp last night hesitated to declare victory. The contest between two of Howard's better-known politicians had focused, in part, on growth and development in the wealthy suburb.

"We're not ready to declare victory yet," Schrader's husband, Dennis, a Republican party activist, said last night after all the precincts had been counted. "We're up by 932 votes," he said. "We're hopeful but not certain."

Gray said he would wait until the absentee ballots were counted on Thursday. "I'll feel good if I win by one vote," he said.

Schrader's apparent victory was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak day for Howard Republicans. County Executive James Robey (D), a former Howard police chief, easily defeated Republican challenger Steven H. Adler, a successful businessman who helped revive the once-moribund Historic Savage Mill shopping complex.

In a sometimes-bitter race for the District 4 County Council seat, Democratic lawyer Ken Ulman soundly beat Republican Joan C. Lancos, a school activist and planning board member. Opponents in the River Hill area sought to link Lancos to last year's volatile school redistricting. She had served on a citizens' advisory panel that helped to draw up the new boundaries in connection with the opening of Reservoir High School.

Ulman's win, along with victories by Guy Guzzone and Dave Rakes, enabled Democrats to preserve their majority on the five-member council. Republican incumbents Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher Merdon were reelected. Democrats also won the three District 13 House of Delegates seats. Shane Pendergrass and Frank S. Turner recaptured their seats; they were joined by political newcomer Neil Quinter, who essentially ran against three Republicans -- Bob Adams, Mary Beth Tung and John Stafford -- for the third seat.

In the nonpartisan school board race, Courtney Watson easily won against Barry Tevelow.

Republicans' hopes had been buoyed early in the day by reports of heavy voting in their stronghold in the western part of the county. By comparison, the early voter turnout was far more moderate in Democratic Columbia.

"The Republican areas were out," said county and state GOP Chairman Louis Pope. "It's something we track."

Schrader, a former legislative aide to former senator Martin G. Madden, was appointed to the seat this year after her popular boss resigned. The substitute teacher in the county school system promised to be fiscally responsible and act as a strong advocate for education.

Gray, a professor of political science at Morgan State University, had served on the County Council for 20 years and campaigned on his knowledge of the area. Because of term limits, he was not eligible to seek reelection to the council.

But his tenure on the county's governing body made him the target of criticism in some circles. Schrader said she had been offered help from several Democrats who were angered by Gray's opposition to allowing a 24-hour county crisis center near Columbia village centers or schools.

Others criticized his support of the huge Maple Lawn development in the Fulton area. Gray said the commercial-residential complex is an example of smart growth. But some residents complained that it would worsen traffic and school crowding. Schrader called the project "a done deal."

In the race for county executive, Howard Republicans sought a reprise of the 1990 election when Charles I. Ecker ousted Democrat Elizabeth Bobo and inaugurated a two-term Republican administration.

Early on, Adler, a self-made millionaire making his first bid for elected office, attacked Robey's fiscal management of the county. But the soft-spoken one-term Democratic incumbent managed to defuse Adler's main criticism by closing a projected $18 million deficit through spending cuts and greater-than-anticipated revenue and avoiding dipping into the county's "rainy day" fund.

The subject of money was a factor in all the races, with the state's projected $1.7 billion deficit over the next two years expected to have a serious impact on the county's budget.

With a population of nearly 250,000, Howard is one of the fastest growing counties in Maryland, as well as one of the wealthiest in the nation, according to 2000 Census data.

Throughout the campaign, Howard candidates faced questions about the effect of the growth on the county's schools and roads.

Voters were also focused on the preservation of rural areas and the challenges of reviving the Route 1 corridor and Columbia's aging village centers.

State Sen. Sandra B. Schrader's fight against Democrat C. Vernon Gray in District 13 went down to the wire.