Republicans are planning a statewide unity event after the primary, and it's being held in Severna Park in part because of the tight and contentious county executive race.

"It's going to be one of our bloodiest counties for primaries," Cluster said.

Despite their tough fight, the candidates agree on many issues and acknowledge that the other is a formidable opponent. Both espouse typical Republican policies: lowering taxes, promoting economic development, improving public safety and running the county efficiently.

"In fairness, we are probably aligned in many areas," Neuman said.

Where the two candidates diverge is on specific taxes and fees.

Neuman knocks Schuh for voting for state legislation that required certain counties to enact stormwater fees, passing on the cost of programs to prevent stormwater pollution. She points to her veto of Anne Arundel's stormwater fee, which the County Council overrode.

Schuh criticizes Neuman for a small property tax increase last year and has pledged a series of property tax cuts if elected.

Schuh and Neuman have completely different life stories, but both developed a competitive drive that led them to success in their careers.

Neuman, 49, tells her story frequently: growing up in Baltimore, dropping out of high school and moving out as a teenager. She earned a GED and took college courses, but her life was upturned when she was raped at 18.

The rapist wasn't caught until Neuman was 37, after she pressed Baltimore police to reopen her case and it was solved with a matched fingerprint. By then, Neuman had earned an MBA at Loyola University, though she never finished her bachelor's degree.

Neuman built a career as an executive at tech companies and found her greatest success with a company called Matrics, which sold for $230 million in 2004, three years after she left.

She went public with her rape story and became an advocate for victims, but said she was driven to do something more for her community. She was working as the economic development director for Howard County when she jumped at the chance to apply to fill Leopold's seat.

"Growing up as I did, it never occurred to me I could be in this role," she said. "I've sort of lived the American dream."

Schuh, 53, grew up mainly in the Anne Arundel suburb of Crofton, the son of a golf pro. He worked summers at the Crofton Country Club as a teen and graduated from the private Severn School and Dartmouth College before pursuing a career in investment banking. He later earned graduate degrees at Harvard and the Johns Hopkins universities and left investment banking in 2002 to pursue his own investments.

Schuh and his business partners own several restaurants, a health club and a golf course. He first ran for public office in 2006 and won a seat as a delegate for the northeastern part of Anne Arundel. He was re-elected in 2010.

He has a personal philosophy dubbed "learn-earn-return." It boils down to spending the first third of one's life focused on education, the second third on building a career and the final third on giving back. For Schuh, politics is his way to give back.

Schuh believes he can make more of a difference for his community as county executive, compared to being one of 141 state lawmakers, and a member of the legislature's greatly outnumbered minority party. Republicans have a majority on the County Council.

The county executive, who makes $130,000 a year, oversees a government with more than 4,000 employees and a $1.3 billion annual budget, and hires department heads, including the county's police and fire chiefs.

As the primary approaches, the campaign has intensified. Both have sent mailers to voters comparing the other to Gov. Martin O'Malley — a tactic expected to strike a nerve with Republicans. On the streets, they meet a mix of undecided voters and die-hard supporters.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Schuh encountered Thomas P. George Sr. in his yard. "Steve Schuh!" George called out.