Anne Arundel County Republicans were looking forward to the 1994 elections like a kid waiting for Santa Claus.
Robert R. Neall, the star of the county GOP and sitting county executive, was being touted as the most viable Republican candidate for governor in nearly a quarter century.
And having him at the top of the ticket was expected to be a major boost for Republicans running for office in this heavily Democratic county.
But with Mr. Neall's announcement last week that he is leaving politics, the balloon burst. Some see it as a major setback.
"It was a damaging blow to the GOP. It was the first time . . . someone came up through our farm team," said Del. John G. Gary, a Republican who intends to run for county executive next year. "And then not to have him run is a blow, there's no question about it.
"There's no question in my mind that Bob Neall could have won the race and his coattails would have been good," Mr. Gary said.
Other party members just consider it a minor stumbling block and expect the GOP to continue making the inroads into county government that began in 1990, when it won the races for county executive, sheriff, court clerk and the first two Republican council seats in 20 years.
Just in terms of voter registration, Republicans have made strides over the past decade.
In 1980, Democrats held more than a 2 to 1 edge over Republicans, who represented only 27 percent of the county's registered voters. Now, Republicans are up to 37.5 percent, with Democrats dropping from 65 percent to 52 percent.
With numbers like these, Republicans say they have reason to still be optimistic about their chances in 1994.
"We're going to field a strong team of candidates for the County Council," said former Delegate John R. Leopold, who also is running for county executive. "There's a strong possibility of the Republicans capturing a majority on the County Council in 1994."
Besides, he said, "Voters in Anne Arundel County are famous for ticket splitting, considering each candidate on his or her own merits."
"I think Republicans generally don't run on coattails. They have to run on their own," said state Sen. John A. Cade, a county Republican. "I think some people are disappointed he's not going to be there, but life goes on."
Diane R. Evans, Mr. Neall's closest political ally on the County Council, agrees.
"I think it would have been better to have him in there because he's well known and commands a lot of respect and people have supported him as county executive," Ms. Evans said.
But party, she added, is not as important as what you promise and whether you can deliver on those promises.
Party Chairwoman Laura Green Treffer expects that Mr. Neall still will be around to help with fund raising.
"Just because he's not running for governor doesn't mean he's falling off the political landscape," she said. "If anything, he may have a little more time to be involved" in local races.
But the county's Democrats, sensing opportunity to regain the county executive's seat, could hardly contain their glee.
"I think it stirs things up in the Republican Party and leaves them in a little bit of disarray," said Del. Theodore J. Sophocleus, who was recently appointed to fill a north county seat in the House of Delegates. Mr. Sophocleus, who narrowly lost the executive's race to Mr. Neall, said he could be in the race again next year, but would not make a decision until after the General Assembly session next spring.
"I think they're scrambling a little bit," said Sen. Michael J. Wagner, a Ferndale Democrat, "because some guy named Shepard isn't going to do it for them." William S. Shepard of Montgomery County ran for governor in 1990 and is one of two Republicans who have announced for next year's race.
Mr. Wagner dismissed the notion that Republicans are gaining ground in the county. "The last time, they knocked off some of our wounded. They didn't knock off our stars," he said.
Perhaps the most inviting prospect for Democrats -- even though none have yet announced -- would be the hotly contested Republican primary for county executive that is shaping up between Mr. Gary and Mr. Leopold.
"That could be a devastating move for the Republicans to have a knock-down, drag-out fight for county executive," Mr. Wagner said. "That would take some of the starch out of their sails."