The Maryland Republican Party lost one of its best hopes to recapture the governor's office yesterday as Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall announced he would not run for the post in 1994.
Citing the need to earn more money to pay for his children's college education, Mr. Neall also said he would not seek re-election as county executive. He said the decision would give him time to find a management job in private industry before his term expires in December 1994.
"I'm personally uncomfortable with . . . being dependent upon elective office for my livelihood," Mr. Neall said at a news conference in Annapolis as his wife and four children stood behind him.
"I'm a middle-class guy, and there are some risks that you can afford to take, and there are some risks that you can't. This is one, I think, that is stretching the limits."
The decision will halt a political career that began two decades ago and included stints as state House minority whip and minority leader. Mr. Neall's departure is a major blow to many Republicans who had hoped he would help the GOP win the governorship for the first time since Spiro T. Agnew was elected in 1966.
Asked if his political career was over, Mr. Neall would only say: "It is for now."
So far, two Republican candidates have declared for the governor's race -- Baltimore County Delegate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the House minority leader, and retired foreign service officer William S. Shepard, the 1990 Republican standard bearer.
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley has also been eyeing the job but has not said what she will do.
Mr. Neall's decision turns up the heat on Mrs. Bentley to declare her intentions for 1994.
Despite the urging of many fellow Republicans, Mrs. Bentley has not said if she plans to run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, seek re-election to the 2nd District seat she has held since 1985, or run for governor.
"Everyone is looking to Helen now, I think, to make her intentions known," Mrs. Sauerbrey said.
Mrs. Bentley, in a telephone interview last night, said she had "not quite" reached a decision. Asked about complaints about her apparent indecisiveness, she snapped, "People have been saying that to me for six months. I'll make it when I'm ready. What my decision will be doesn't affect anybody else."
Not surprisingly, Mrs. Sauerbrey and Mr. Shepard each claimed to be the chief beneficiary of Mr. Neall's decision not to run.
"From my perspective, it frees up a number of Republicans who were sitting on the fence who were friends of both Bob Neall's and mine. They will now feel comfortable to make a commitment to me," Mrs. Sauerbrey said.
Mr. Shepard reacted by declaring himself the front-runner. "Coming from Montgomery County, the county with the largest number of Republicans, having run before and having that statewide experience, I'm now the person to beat," he said.
Party leaders gathering for their fall convention in the Western Maryland town of Cumberland reacted with praise for Mr. Neall's public career and generally brave words about the party's statewide chances next year.
"All it does is narrow the primary candidates, which is a concern I certainly have had," said Joyce L. Terhes, the state party chairwoman. "I have said from Day 1 that I didn't want to have a huge, large primary."
State Sen. John A. Cade of Anne Arundel, a friend and political ally of Mr. Neall, was less sanguine. "I think it's a blow to the party," Mr. Cade said. "Bobby Neall was the brightest light and one of the most competent and capable executive types. I think he was our leading candidate."
Mr. Cade has been weighing a statewide run for either comptroller or the Sarbanes Senate seat, but there were hints in the aftermath of Mr. Neall's announcement that he now may be encouraged to seek the governorship.
There are currently three major candidates for governor in the Democratic field: Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening and state Sen. Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County.
In Annapolis yesterday, Mr. Neall said that a major consideration behind his decision to leave public life was putting his children through college. His son David, 16, is in 12th grade and his daughter Lindsay, 14, is in ninth.
"It's a risky business," he said of politics. "And I am getting to the stage in my life when you should start to mitigate risk."
Mr. Neall interrupted his political career in 1987 to work as vice president of external affairs at the Johns Hopkins Health System. His annual salary there was about $150,000 -- twice what he earns as county executive, said his press secretary, Louise Hayman. The governor's office pays $120,000 a year.
Ms. Hayman said Mr. Neall chose to announce his decision yesterday so that he could speak about it at the Cumberland GOP meeting.
Mr. Neall said he had not discussed his decision with Mrs. Bentley or the other candidates. He also declined to endorse anyone or speculate on who would win.
His announcement comes a little more than three weeks after Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced he would not run for governor. Republicans had looked forward to running against the mayor, considered by some in the GOP to be the most vulnerable of the Democrats.
Mr. Schmoke's urban background and the city's perceived decline might have been good targets for Mr. Neall's fiscal pragmatism and his appeal to suburban voters. But yesterday, Mr. Neall said his announcement and Mr. Schmoke's were not connected.
"Kurt's decision didn't have a material effect on this," he said.
Mr. Neall, 45, added that he thought he could have won the race. Last month, he named a 26-member committee to explore his chances. Early signals were favorable, he said.
"To tell you the truth, a good bit of the intelligence that I was getting from the exploratory committee . . . was positive. I've got to be honest with you, that made the decision that much more difficult, because it was doable."
Mr. Neall, who is comfortable one-on-one but less so when speaking before large crowds, said he also did not look forward to a grueling, statewide campaign.
"Those who know me well know that campaigning is not my favorite fruit," he said. Nor did he look forward, he said, to trying to raise the $3 million that he would have needed for the campaign.
Because of his long public consideration of a gubernatorial bid, Mr. Neall's decision not to run for a second term as county executive had been expected among local Republicans. Two other prominent GOP politicians already have stepped forward.
Former Del. John Leopold, who had intended to run for county executive in 1990 but deferred when Mr. Neall entered the race, has been campaigning for the office since early 1992. This spring, Del. John G. Gary, a Neall ally, made it clear he intends to run.
Democratic Party officials in Anne Arundel are actively searching for a candidate to carry their mantle in next year's election. Theodore J. Sophocleus, a former councilman who narrowly lost to Mr. Neall in 1990, was expected to run but was appointed to a vacancy in the House of Delegates this spring. He has indicated he will seek election to that post next year.