Theodore J. Sophocleus, a heavy-set pharmacist, stood near a group of lean runners at the finish line of a race and made himself right at home.
Although he's no jogger, Sophocleus had gone to the Glen Burnie event the other day to advance his now neck-and-neck campaign against Republican Robert R. Neall for Anne Arundel County executive.
"They were predicting last April that Bobby Neall was some kind of Superman. I think we're showing we have the Kryptonite," crowed Sophocleus, 51, a two-term Democratic county councilman. A Sun poll last week showed him with a slight edge over Neall, 42, a former state House minority leader and drug-policy coordinator who earlier had been expected to command a large lead.
If Sophocleus has any secret formula, it may be the one thing that some Democrats once feared would hurt him: his friendly guy-next-door image.
Unlike Neall, a former corporate vice president, or departing County Executive O. James Lighthizer, an attorney who said he wanted to run the government like a Fortune 500 company, Sophocleus is not likely to be mistaken for a power-luncher.
Sophocleus, a Linthicum pharmacist, turns up more often in a sport shirt or a blazer than in a business suit. He cruises the county in a camper. His campaign stickers -- yellow teddy bears -- are cute, not corporate.
"We're not running a Park Avenue election," said Sophocleus, who remains true to his working class base in northern Anne Arundel.
Still, Democratic insiders wonder if Sophocleus should sharpen his appearance and message to appeal to white-collar residents of Severna Park, Annapolis and Crofton in the rapidly growing central part of the county. Those areas tend to have more Republicans and higher household incomes.
Voters' initial impressions of the candidates may be particularly important if, as Barney Krout, 70, of Severn, claims "very few people are paying attention to the county executive race."
Bill Gunther, 62, head cashier at the Annapolis Seafood Market in Severna Park, said he will vote for Neall because he seems more professional. "When you talk about politics you talk about classes of people," said Gunther, a Republican from Arnold.
"The support goes to the person who is most like you. Sophocleus will have the support of the blue collar workers, and Neall will have the support of the professional people," he predicted.
"People do judge you by how you dress and groom yourself," said Democrat Michael Mallinoff, who managed Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins' successful campaign last year.
"Bobby [Neall] does dress like a banker and very much like a Republican, but Ted [Sophocleus] skirts the middle. He won't offend his working class base, but he does dress professionally," he said.
Residents who are unhappy with slick, unresponsive government, particularly in Washington, may find Sophocleus more appealing precisely because he seems so ordinary, Mallinoff said.
Last year, for example, Annapolitans picked the folksy veteran alderman Al Hopkins over the media-savvy incumbent, Dennis Callahan, in the Democratic mayoral primary.
"Let Ted be Ted," agreed Jerry Grant, who managed Democratic Rep. Tom McMillen's slim 1986 victory over Neall for the 4th District congressional seat.
If Sophocleus seems most comfortable shaking hands at a church supper, as some argue, then Neall appears most sure of himself when crunching numbers and analyzing budgets.
Neall fervently believes he is the man to take a scalpel to the budget, especially in economic hard times. Yesterday, he unveiled a 17-page proposal, plus eight charts and spreadsheets, outlining his fiscal policy.
He rapped Lighthizer and Sophocleus for spending too much in the last eight years on perks and salaries for top managers, a $6.9 million county swimming pool, a plush office building near Annapolis and other items.
Neall promised to make the budget his top priority, limit property tax revenues increases to 5 percent a year and ensure that the budget grows slower than the growth in personal income in Anne Arundel.
While the Democrat stresses his compassion for residents, Neall emphasizes his concern for residents' tax dollars. He trumpets his budgetary competence in the state legislature, where, he said, his tightness with a dollar earned him the nickname, "the Slasher."
Neall has pointed to the current property tax revolt as a tangible sign of Sophocleus' failure as a councilman. Sophocleus, however, charges that state budgets and taxes rose during Neall's tenure in the legislature.
It remains to be seen whether voters' tax woes and anti-incumbent feelings will hurt the Democratic nominee on Nov. 6.
So far, Sophocleus has been like Teflon -- even charges of campaign finance irregularities have not particularly stuck.
Neall accused his opponent of laundering money after discovering that Sophocleus had listed contributors who had not donated money. Sophocleus explained that those people had donated cakes for a wheel game.
Wags dubbed it "cakegate," and a skeptical populace seemed unimpressed by the episode, which backfired on Neall. "I don't believe half the politicians," Krout said.
Neall now is concentrating on mail and cable television advertising. His camp is proud of his glossy new brochure. It features photos of his wife and four children, and it hammers away on his fiscal responsibility theme.
Neall has picked the right issue for these slow economic times, Lighthizer said.
"Ultimately, the race will be decided by Mr. and Mrs. Suburban Homeowner and the comfort they have with the candidate running a $600 million organization," Lighthizer said, referring to the county budget. Coupled with a possible recession, those factors "play into Bob Neall's strength," said Lighthizer.
The next three weeks will be crucial, as were the final weeks in Neall's 1986 congressional campaign against McMillen. McMillen ultimately won by 428 votes, largely because of his strength in the Howard and Prince George's counties.
"I think the person who wants it the most, who works the hardest during the last few weeks, will win," Grant said.