Montgomery County voters elected Democrat Neal Potter county executive yesterday, while Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) cruised to an easy reelection and voters in the 1st Congressional District ousted five-term Rep. Roy P. Dyson (D).

Across the state, voters sent strong -- if mixed -- messages to local leaders. Tax-limitation measures met unexpected resistance in the three counties where they appeared on the ballot. And Republicans appeared to score major gains, particularly in growing suburban areas.

In a surprisingly close race, Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D) was trailing Republican Charles I. Ecker so narrowly that the outcome likely will hinge on 1,800 absentee ballots that will be counted tomorrow.

Schaefer won election to a second term by defeating Republican William S. Shepard, a former diplomat from Potomac. But Schaefer's victory margin was depressed by what his strategists called voter unhappiness with taxes, falling significantly below the record he won in 1986.

"This has been a tough campaign," Schaefer said at a victory party in Baltimore last night. "There's a mood of uncertainty, a philosophy of voting against all incumbents."

In the sprawling 1st District, which includes Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, Republican schoolteacher Wayne T. Gilchrest defeated Dyson by about a 12-point margin. Dyson had been mired in controversy over his ties to the defense industry and his status as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Gilchrest, who nearly defeated Dyson two years ago, received strong support this fall from top Republicans, including Vice President Quayle.

That victory, coupled with reelections in other congressional districts, gave Republicans control of three of eight House seats from Maryland. The GOP appeared to have picked up several state House of Delegates seats, two seats each on the all-Democratic Montgomery and Anne Arundel county councils and possibly three of the six major county executive seats.

In Anne Arundel County, where the executive's seat was open, former House of Delegates minority leader Robert R. Neall apparently beat Democratic County Council member Theodore J. Sophocleus. Although about 3,400 absentee ballots remain to be counted, Sophocleus would have to win more than 75 percent of them to overcome Neall's lead.

Republicans scored another significant gain in Baltimore County, where Democratic County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen lost to GOP businessman Roger B. Hayden.

In Prince George's County, incumbents fared better. County Executive Parris N. Glendening handily won election to his third term and State's Attorney Alex Williams easily defeated a comeback attempt by former state's attorney Arthur A. "Bud" Marshall Jr., a Democrat turned Republican.

In the most closely watched race in Prince George's County, election officials said it could take several days to determine whether write-in candidate Stephen J. Del Giudice (D) would succeed convicted council member Anthony J. Cicoria (D).

In a race uncharacteristic of normally staid Montgomery County, County Executive Sidney Kramer, 65, began a write-in campaign for his lost seat soon after his Democratic primary defeat at the hands of Potter, 75, a veteran council member. Potter got more than 61 percent of the vote yesterday, while Kramer and Ceccone each had about 19 percent.

Kramer had been the favorite all summer, and had harbored hopes of using his victory to launch a possible gubernatorial campaign in 1994.

The tax initiative approved by Montgomery voters was the mildest of three on the county ballot, but it will essentially limit tax growth to the rate of inflation.

Anne Arundel County taxpayers, rather than place a strict limit on local government, rejected the tax initiative on their ballot yesterday. A tax ceiling measure in Baltimore County also was rejected after heavy voting there.

Yesterday's generally light voting brought to an end an odd election year in Maryland.

In Prince George's, a convicted felon was on the ballot for reelection to the County Council. The long-shot Republican candidate for governor made his chances even slimmer by naming his wife as his running mate. And a handful of incumbents just wouldn't take no for an answer.

Besides Kramer, there were write-in movements for Prince George's County Council candidate Del Giudice, state Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut of Montgomery County and former senator Tommie Broadwater Jr. in Prince George's.

Del Giudice, who finished second behind Cicoria in the 2nd Council District Democratic primary, had less than a week to organize his write-in campaign, but he got help from the Prince George's Democratic establishment, Schaefer and, ultimately, Cicoria himself.

Cicoria, who was convicted after the primary on charges of stealing campaign money and lying on tax forms, withdrew from the race on Friday and asked his supporters to write in Del Giudice.

But his name remained on the ballot, along with that of Republican J. Lee Ball Jr., who had been disowned by the GOP.

The tax limitation questions in Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties gave political leaders a bad case of nerves at a time when revenue -- pushed down by a slowing Maryland economy -- was lagging far behind predictions at the state and local levels.

Even as the election approached, county and state leaders were cutting spending to avoid deficits.

Anti-tax fever first broke out briefly in Annapolis early this year after homeowners, particularly those in Montgomery County, got their new property tax assessments. The General Assembly responded by placing a 10 percent annual limit on assessment increases, lowering it from 15 percent.

But petition drives in the three fast-growing counties showed that property owners weren't mollified. Although initially the tax limitation proposals were considered wildly popular, polls taken shortly before the election showed that many voters were having second thoughts about cutbacks that could affect schools and emergency services. A vigorous radio campaign, backed financially by teacher organizations, sprang up late in the season urging voters to defeat the tax limits.

Maryland this year found itself a national test case of the electoral strategy planned by abortion rights organizations. After failing to push abortion-rights legislation through the General Assembly, the groups targeted antiabortion lawmakers and sought to produce a clear majority in the Senate and House of Delegates.

In the Sept. 11 primary, four antiabortion senators, including a leader of an eight-day filibuster in March, were defeated by abortion-rights advocates, who benefited from thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and platoons of volunteers.

So clear was the message that Schaefer, after refusing for a year to provide his position on abortion, announced soon after the primary that he supports, as a matter of government policy, a woman's right to choose.

Both sides conceded that the primary outcome demonstrated the abortion issue's clout at the polls, but they were awaiting results of the general election in a handful of districts before predicting what type of legislation could pass next year.

Abortion-rights groups suffered setbacks in the general election voting and apparently fell short of their stated goal of creating a "filibuster-proof" Maryland Senate despite primary gains. Antiabortion candidates won two key Senate races and at least three House contests yesterday.

However, Karyn Strickler, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, continued to maintain that majorities are in place in the Senate and House to pass legislation next year assuring women the right to choose.