AUGUSTA — After weeks of absorbing a spillover of presidential politics from across the border, Maine’s focus on the race for the White House grew sharper Wednesday as the primary election results from next door sank in.
State party officials said Tuesday’s voting was bound to — or already had begun to — stimulate campaign organizing by the Democratic and Republican candidates in Maine in advance of the March 7 primaries here.
For the top-tier candidates, their quest now enters a new phase after months of concentration on the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
One day after besting Texas Gov. George W. Bush by 18 points in the New Hampshire Republican primary, Arizona Sen. John McCain said, “it’s going to get more intense.”
Bush said he was surprised by Tuesday’s result, but added: “I am mentally prepared for the long haul.”
New Hampshire’s Democratic primary victor, Vice President Gore, called his narrow win over Bill Bradley “a devastating blow” to the campaign of the former senator from New Jersey.
Bradley, however, said his campaign had made “a remarkable turnaround.”
For Democrats, the next primary voting is five weeks off. That’s when Maine and the rest of New England are among states holding elections. So too are the big states of California and New York.
For Republicans, there is little respite. Delaware is next on Feb. 8. South Carolina has a Republican primary on Feb. 19. Arizona and Michigan hold GOP primaries Feb. 22, followed by Virginia on Feb. 29.
The March 7 primaries, though, could still loom large for the GOP hopefuls.
“I’m encouraged by the Republicans having a friendly, competitive race,” the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, Dwayne Bickford, said Wednesday. “And it certainly shows the depth of our team.”
Bickford’s Democratic Party counterpart, Barbara Raths, said her party’s contest had been competitive for weeks and she joked that Democrats had not needed New Hampshire to highlight that fact.
“They’re now glad,” Raths said facetiously of Bickford’s comments. “We’ve been glad for a while. Welcome to being glad.”
Four years ago in the state’s first break from a traditional caucus system, President Clinton was virtually uncontested in Maine and took 88.4 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Nine percent of the vote went uncommitted and Lyndon LaRouche took 2.6 percent.
On the Republican side in 1996, Bob Dole was the establishment favorite and eventual nominee. He won the Maine Republican primary with 46.3 percent, followed by that year’s New Hampshire victor, Pat Buchanan, who took 24.5 percent in Maine.
Steve Forbes, finishing third with 14.9 percent, was the only other GOP candidate to make it into double digits in Maine in 1996. Lamar Alexander came in fourth with 6.6 percent, with Sen. Richard Lugar fifth at 2.9 percent.
Another sliver of the Republican vote — 2.6 percent — was recorded as uncommitted, followed by Alan Keyes’ share of 1.8 percent.
Five weeks is a long time in the life of a presidential candidacy, and where the various rivals will stand by March 7 cannot be known. But in the wake of the New Hampshire voting, there is no shortage of theories.
“I think McCain’s margin was certainly impressive,” said independent Gov. Angus King, who publicly professes no preference in the nominating battles. At the same time, King noted, New Hampshire stalled the GOP’s front-runner in 1996 without lasting impact on the way to the national convention.
Assessing the Democratic outcome in New Hampshire, King said Gore’s win, “even though it wasn’t a huge margin, makes a very tough road for Bradley at this point. … At some point, you’ve got to win a few.”
Toward that end, the Democratic rivals are likely to devote some resources to little Maine.
“Apparently both campaigns are bringing field folks in from New Hampshire,” Raths said.
Much of organized labor pledged to Gore is also gearing up, according to Secretary-Treasurer Ned McCann of the Maine AFL-CIO.
Maine figures to be “a relatively small state in the whole scheme of things, but every delegate counts,” McCann said.
Bickford said Bush retains an organizational edge in Maine among the GOP candidates, but that there are signs of grass-roots enthusiasm for McCain and a potential for Forbes’ campaign to step up its presence.
Meanwhile, there is the matter of those old-fashioned Maine caucuses, which still begin the process of selecting the national convention delegates who will do the actual nominating of presidential candidates. (It is the caucuses that produce delegates to this spring’s Democratic and Republican state conventions.)
This year, Democrats will caucus in their local communities on March 5. Republicans, by tradition, spread out their caucuses over a period of weeks that runs through March 20.
Facts about 1996 Maine primaries
The Associated Press
Some facts about Maine’s first presidential primaries in 1996.
Total votes cast: 94,307.
Combined percentage of enrolled Democrats and Republicans voting: 16 percent.
Percentage of estimated voting age population voting: 10 percent.
Republican votes: 67,280.
Percentage of enrolled Republicans voting: 25 percent.
Democratic votes: 27,027.
Percentage of enrolled Democrats voting: 9 percent.
Source: Maine secretary of state