Little presidential race rush in Maine

AUGUSTA, Maine -- How early is it in Maine's presidential sweepstakes? Well, for one thing, it won't be at least until this weekend that state Republicans decide how they will vote for a GOP presidential nominee next year, and when.

Maine Democrats are a little farther along than that, having chosen Feb. 10 as the date for the party's 2008 municipal caucuses that will help choose the next Democratic presidential nominee.

The Feb. 10 date was the first Sunday in the time window set by the Democratic National Committee for Maine to caucus.

Executive Director Julie Ann O'Brien of the Maine Republican Party says GOP state committee members meeting Saturday might scrap the party's more traditional drawn-out time period for local caucuses next year in favor of some kind of consolidated presidential preference voting on a date still to be determined.

"That very well might happen," she said.

Beyond that, however, presidential politicking in Maine is still in the early stage.

Democratic activists are just beginning to gather around, and be wooed by, the campaigns of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, as well as former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

"Little groups are just beginning to coalesce," said Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Dudley.

On the GOP side, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have endorsed fellow Sen. John McCain of Arizona, but lots of other party faithful are still surveying a field of potential candidates that includes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, California Rep. Duncan Hunter and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

The senatorial McCain endorsements, seconded by former Gov. John McKernan, who is married to Snowe, and state House Minority Leader Josh Tardy of Newport, stand out.

"I haven't actually seen any kind of ground effort of that significance on behalf of any other candidates at this time," said uncommitted party activist Ann Robinson, a lawyer and Statehouse lobbyist.

Neither list can be called exhaustive, given that former Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore of Tennessee and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, to name two more, stir broad interest despite their uncertain status.

"Everybody for the most part is kind of holding their cards close," said Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who has yet to publicly align himself.

Seven years ago, which was the last time there was competition for both major party nominations, George W. Bush's campaign called Maine the beachhead from which he would wage the rest of his presidential campaign after Maine became the only New England state whose Republicans lined up in the then-Texas governor's column.

Gore's Democratic supporters, meanwhile, predicted after his win in the state's 2000 Democratic primary that the vice president would win the support of independents and Democrats who had strayed from party ranks in the past.

Gore carried the state in the general election.

In 2004, when President Bush was not challenged for renomination, eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts, won the Maine caucuses, finishing ahead of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Kucinich and Edwards.

Kerry took Maine in the fall.

As this year's Democratic and Republican contests light up nationally, Maine remains under a neighboring shadow.

"You're in the suburbs of New Hampshire's politics," Baldacci says. O'Brien agrees, characterizing Maine's main attraction at this point as its position next door.

"That is true. It's not because we have so many votes. It's because we're here," she says.

Dudley says that fact of geography becomes Maine's selling point to national campaigns -- its proximity to New Hampshire and shared media reach.

"I make the pitch to all the campaigns that a trip to Maine is of double benefit to them," Dudley says.

Meanwhile, a lack of concerted campaign action shouldn't be a major concern, jokes Republican state Sen. Peter Mills of Cornville.

"I applaud the fact that nothing's going on," Mills says, although he adds that he has decided already to support Giuliani.