Joan Lancos - the Republican candidate for County Council in heavily Democratic west Columbia - thinks her chances of winning in that race just improved.
Mary Kay Sigaty, barely defeated in the closely fought Democratic primary last week, shares a long community-volunteer background with Lancos that overlaps to the point that both sat on the same school boundary-lines advisory committee last year.
Columbia native Kenneth S. Ulman, the standard-bearer for his party in District 4 now that Sigaty has conceded, has state and national political experience - from campaigning for Bill Clinton in 1996 to advising Gov. Parris N. Glendening on expenditures. He also won primary endorsements from key Democratic leaders.
But Lancos, 48, who ran unopposed in her primary, is counting on her local efforts to carry the day. She fired the first barrage of the general-election campaign by characterizing Ulman as a partisan player running in a district inclined toward grassroots activism.
"The voters have an obvious choice between the two candidates: a community advocate who's been working in the community for 20 years vs. a newcomer to the local political scene," said Lancos, a former member of the Columbia Council and county planning board.
"I think it's really important to recognize what the community - what District 4 - showed in the closeness of that [primary] race. They showed that they were willing to consider the person and not the party."
Ulman, 28, shot back that the main difference he sees beyond party affiliation is age.
"She's certainly had more years to be a volunteer," said Ulman, an attorney specializing in elder law and estate planning.
"But in my 28 years, I've worked all around the country on campaigns, I've worked in the governor's office as a liaison to local governments, I served as the governor's director on the Board of Public Works. ... I'm the only candidate that has experience working in government. I know how to get things done."
Sigaty wouldn't comment on that debate yesterday but said she will not endorse a candidate for District 4. "I will be leaving it to the voters," she said. "That's what it comes down to."
Local election results will not be official until the counts are certified by the local board. That will happen tomorrow, election officials say.
But county Election Board workers pored over the nearly 40 ballots remaining yesterday - a few overseas votes and more provisional ballots - and said the tally in District 4 put Ulman ahead by 36 votes, one less than before.
In the other tight council race, Diane Wilson remained ahead of Kirk Halpin in the District 3 Republican primary by 53 votes, unchanged from the earlier count. Halpin bowed out after the new results were announced about 4 p.m.
"This is the point to concede she did a great job," he said. "We'll see what happens four years from now - I'm 32 years old, and 2006 isn't that far away."
Wilson will face Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, who represents the North Laurel-Savage district.
The stressful primary's impact reached beyond politics when election board president Roland L. Howard, arguing that several absentee ballots should not be disqualified for their late delivery, suffered a heart attack last week.
He remained in critical condition at Howard County General Hospital yesterday afternoon.
Meanwhile, the local coordinators of each party looked ahead hopefully to the Nov. 5 election, each seeing the districts with close primaries as key seats in the fight for council dominance. Democrats hold three of the five seats currently.
Both parties consider North Laurel-Savage the swing district because it's flip-flopped in the past, though they also agree that its demographics are more Democratic now after redistricting.
Wendy Fiedler, chairwoman of the county Democrats, sees District 4 as possibly the party's strongest base, with nearly twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.
West Columbia has never been represented by a Republican in the 16 years Howard County has had council districts.
Fiedler views the close primary not as an ill omen but as a sign of two strong choices. "That just illustrates that both of our candidates were in touch with the needs and wishes of that constituency," she said.
But Louis M. Pope, county Republican Party chairman, is counting on Sigaty supporters to cross party lines for another local activist. He's watching both districts closely.
"Those two races are going to be very, very exciting races, and both of those races will be very close - just as the primaries were," he said.