Republican Charles I. Ecker seemed on the verge of upsetting Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo yesterday with all precincts reporting but more than 1,800 absentee ballots still to be tabulated.

In unofficial results, Ecker led Bobo by 244 votes, or less than 0.5 percent.

If the retired school administrator holds his lead, it will be a stunning upset for first-term incumbent Bobo, who was widely expected to defeat Ecker.

Bobo and Ecker said last night the race was too close to call because of the absentee votes, which will not be counted until tomorrow.

But the Democratic incumbent gave supporters something that stopped just short of being a concession speech.

"I wouldn't trade anything for the opportunity I've had for the past four years to be Howard County executive," Bobo told a crowd assembled in Columbia. "Being county executive was extremely rewarding."

Meanwhile, jubilant Republican Party officials, unlike their candidate, were declaring victory last night, saying that most of the absentee ballots had been requested by Republicans.

"I'm the happiest woman in the world," said Carol A. Arscott, chairman of the county Republican Central Committee.

Bobo campaign manager Jon Files attributed Ecker's strong showing to "a fairly heavy Republican turnout" and the strong anti-incumbent sentiment sweeping the state and the nation this year.

Another factor in the unexpectedly close race appears to have been discontent with the pace of growth in Howard, a theme Ecker struck repeatedly during the campaign.

Council member Angela Beltram (D-District 2) received only 41 percent of the vote and conceded defeat to Republican Darrel Drown early in the evening, attributing her loss to Republican vigor.

Beltram generally has been regarded as the strongest advocate of growth controls on the five-member council.

For four years Bobo has struggled with the practical and political consequences of managing the state's fastest-growing county.

Midway between Baltimore and Washington, the county has swelled with new families, many of them registered Republicans.

During the campaign, Ecker hammered Bobo and other Democrats for failing to brake runaway development that is clogging roads and crowding county schools.

Bobo began her term vowing to be tough on developers but ultimately charted a middle course on growth, seeking to appease both the county's business and development community and its increasingly vocal slow-growth activists.

Often, however, it seemed she was alienating both groups. Her legislation to prevent construction on steep slopes and near wetlands and her 18-month cap on new building permits outraged developers.

Meanwhile, her General Plan, a 20-year blueprint meant to chart the county's future growth, angered many citizen activists, who said it would allow too much development.

Beyond the growth issue, Ecker took the same approach as other Republican challengers in this anti-incumbent year: He accused Bobo of being a tax-and-spend Democrat out of touch with the electorate.

Under Bobo, county spending rose about 88 percent, to $286.4 million, as the population grew 18.8 percent. Already, county officials are making contingency plans to cut $12 million from their current budget if revenue fails to meet projections.

Promising to get tough on developers, Republicans sought to put a dent in the Democrats' 4 to 1 dominance of the five-member County Council, and shifted the balance to 3 tom 2.

Council Chairman Shane Pendergrass (D-District 1), who represents the eastern part of the county from Elkridge to North Laurel, defeated Dennis R. Schrader, an engineer. In Columbia, Republican Michael J. Deets failed in a last-minute bid to unseat Paul R. Farragut (D-District 4).

Incumbent Charles C. Feaga (R-District 5), a longtime farmer, beat Democrat D. Susan Scheidt.

The sheriff's race this year was bitterly contested in the wake of disclosures that two top deputies participated in Nazi mimicry. Incumbent Herbert Stonesifer lost in the Democratic primary to Michael A. Chiuchiolo, who led Republican Richmond Laney.

State's Attorney William R. Hymes was ahead of Republican Richard J. Kinlein.