Robert R. Neall, the former Republican leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, appeared to have won a narrow victory yesterday in the race for Anne Arundel County executive.

With all 133 precincts reporting, Neall led Democrat Theodore J. Sophocleus, a two-term County Council member, 51 to 49 percent. With just 2,696 votes separating the candidates, however, the outcome of the contest will not be certain until the estimated 3,440 absentee ballots are counted.

During his campaign, Neall warned voters that the county is headed for an economic downturn and argued that his background as a skilled budget analyst with a willingness to say "no" made him better prepared to cope with it.

Neall, in an interview shortly after he claimed victory in the race, said, "We won this election the hard way. We told folks the truth."

In addition to capturing the county executive's office after an eight-year hiatus, local Republicans also broke the Democratic Party's 20-year monopoly of the County Council, scored an upset victory over the clerk of the Circuit Court and unseated the man who has been sheriff for 28 years.

Four-term County Council member Edward C. Ahern Jr. (D), 51, was unseated by Republican Carl G. Holland in the race to represent the Pasadena area.

And in the race to fill a vacancy in the council district that includes Severna Park, Republican Diane R. Evans, 42, a former Neall aide, captured two-thirds of the vote to defeat Democrat Linda Gilligan, 38.

In its final days, the county executive's race seemed to turn on personalities, pitting Neall's no-nonsense, businesslike approach against Sophocleus's nice-guy image. Although Neall began the year with a wide lead in the polls, some observers had recently begun giving the edge to Sophocleus, saying his style was more likely to inspire the kind of loyalty that would send his supporters to the polls.

Sophocleus, meanwhile, appeared before a group of 700 supporters at the Odenton Volunteer Fire Station about 10:30 p.m. and announced that he was not conceding.

Wiping away tears, he said, "The fact that it is so close is an indication that over the past few months the Sophocleus campaign has gotten to the people."

The winner will succeed Democrat James Lighthizer, who by law could not seek a third consecutive four-year term.

Neall was involved in another razor-thin race four years ago, when he ran for Congress against Democrat Tom McMillen. The results of that race, which Neall lost by fewer than 500 votes, were not known until almost four days after the election.

Neall, 42, a Davidsonville native who carried Anne Arundel during his unsuccessful congressional campaign, has long been regarded by state Republican leaders as one of their best hopes for capturing a high office this year.

But Neall's shot at an easy victory dimmed after a July car accident forced him to stay off the campaign trail for much of the summer and early fall. In the meantime, Sophocleus, 51, maintained a high profile that helped him win the Democratic nomination over three opponents by a decisive margin.

Meanwhile, Sophocleus used the same grass-roots strategy that helped him first win a council seat eight years ago. Building on allegiances forged during his days as a civic association president, PTA president and youth football coach, he based his campaign on extensive personal appearances and a pledge to be accessible if elected.

In contrast to Neall's gloomy economic predictions, Sophocleus offered a rosy outlook and teddy bear campaign souvenirs, while his portly, spectacled appearance seemed to promise a continuation of comfortable times.

Meanwhile, in Anne Arundel's first contested prosecutor's race in 16 years, State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee (D), defeated his Republican challenger, Timothy D. Murnane (R), a former public defender.

In County Council races, Democrats George F. Bachman, a former council member, and Edward Middlebrooks, a Glen Burnie lawyer, captured the two open north county districts from their Republican opponents, Gerald P. Starr and Ernest C. Michaelson.

Council Chairman Virginia P. Clagett (D) defeated John J. Klocko III, a Crofton lawyer, while council member Maureen Lamb (D), of Annapolis, defeated Glenwood Gibbs (R).