AUGUSTA – Sen. Barack Obama defeated Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Maine presidential caucuses Sunday, grabbing a majority of delegates as the state’s Democrats overlooked the snowy weather and turned out in record numbers for municipal gatherings.
Democrats in 420 Maine towns and cities decided how the state’s 24 delegates would be allotted at the party’s national convention in August. Despite the weather, the turnout shattered the previous record, party executive director Arden Manning said.
With 91 percent of the participating precincts reporting, Obama led in state delegates elected over Clinton, 1,878 to 1,305, with 17 uncommitted.
The voting came a day after Obama and Clinton made personal appeals here, and after Obama picked up wins in Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington state.
Obama’s campaign described the Maine win as an upset which, combined with other victories, shows “he has broad national appeal and can win in every corner of this country.”
But Obama’s campaign statement said he “still faces an uphill battle in every upcoming contest because the Clintons are far better known and have a political machine that’s been honed over two decades.”
An Associated Press projection based on the incomplete tallies showed Obama has 13 of Maine’s national delegates to eight for Clinton.
Caucus organizers had expected heavy participation at the caucuses, but snow was falling and gusting winds hit as many of the gatherings were scheduled.
In the end, excitement over the races prevailed over the weather with more than 40,000 votes, far surpassing the old record of 17,000 set in 2004, when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean were vying for the party’s nomination, Manning said.
Caucuses started late in Bangor and several other locations across the state because so many people showed up that they were lined up outside the doors.
Kerry in Bangor for Obama
The number of voters at Bangor’s caucus on Sunday doubled since the last presidential election, according to organizers. Obama handily won the event, which featured a visit by one of his supporters, Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.
At the Bangor Civic Center, 971 Bangor Democrats gathered from 1 to 4 p.m. to register and vote for their presidential picks.
“We have two or three times the number of people we expected. We’re overwhelmed,” said Rep. Michael Dunn, D-Bangor.
In Bangor, 693 people voted for Obama and 269 people voted for Clinton. That translated into 64 Obama delegates and 27 Clinton delegates, all of whom will travel to Augusta for the Democratic State Convention, to be held May 30-June 1.
Kerry spoke in favor of Obama at the start of the caucus.
“I came here and I’m involved in this race because Barack Obama has the best ability to create transformational change for America and to bridge the old divides to get it done,” Kerry said.
Ursula Pritham, a 52-year-old assistant professor of nursing at the University of Maine, attended Saturday’s rallies led by Obama and Clinton. After some thought, she decided to vote for Clinton.
“It boils down to experience. She [Clinton] fielded questions and she had the ability to respond in a very specific manner. And she was honest,” Pritham said.
The Veazie caucus also was held at the Bangor Civic Center. The 60 registrants elected four Obama delegates and two Clinton delegates, according to organizer Stan Marshall.
At Orono High School, 619 registrants elected 23 Obama delegates and seven Clinton delegates, according to attendee Chuck Veeder.
Big turnout in Belfast
Not only was the caucus in Belfast delayed for more than an hour as clerks registered new or party-switching voters, the site was so crowded it had to be moved from the Troy Howard Middle School cafeteria to the gymnasium. Hundreds of voters filled the chairs on the floor and both sets of bleachers to pick delegates to the state party convention.
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years and I’ve never seen anything like this at a caucus,” Belfast City Clerk Roberta Fogg said after handling the new registrants. “This is the first time I’ve ever had more than a handful. At the Republican caucus last week, I think I had four.”
Fogg had 44 unenrolled voters switch to the Democrats to participate in the caucus, had two Green Party members switch parties and registered 11 new voters.
All told, 425 registered Democrats took part in the caucus, including 54 by absentee ballot. The final tally had 288 votes for Obama to 118 to Clinton. The Clinton-Obama drama determined that of the city’s 20 delegates to the state convention, 14 were captured by the Illinois senator and six by the former first lady.
“I like Obama. He seems like a real straight-shooter to me,” said Jeff Shula. “He seems to have fresh ideas and is not as willing to compromise as is Hillary, who seems pretty tied to the old Democratic ways.”
Joe Stearns came down in Clinton’s camp. “I’ve been for Hillary since before Obama even thought of running,” Stearns said. “She [is] a strong person, she’s for health care and I think she’s going to be a great commander in chief. She’s a really bright person and that’s what we need right now.”
Close contest in Houlton
Voters from three towns converged on the Houlton Fire Station to cast votes in the Democratic caucus.
Approximately 100 registered Democrats from Houlton, Littleton and New Limerick attended the event.
It was standing room only at the fire station, as approximately 100 people from the three towns turned out despite a snowstorm that hung over the area for much of the day and made for slick travel.
Cars jammed the parking lot and the fire station ran out of chairs, forcing several people to stand or lean against the walls during the two-hour event. Several attendees spoke passionately on behalf of Clinton and Obama.
The town of Houlton will send 15 delegates to the Democratic State Convention. On Sunday, eight delegates supported Obama while seven supported Clinton. The two Littleton delegates were split, with one vote each for Clinton and Obama. New Limerick will send one delegate, who on Sunday supported Clinton.
“This is a great problem to have,” Mike Carpenter, the Houlton caucus convener, said of the crowds. “I never thought I’d see the day that people would be double-parking at a Democratic caucus.”
Carpenter said he had only two people call and say they could not make it to the caucus because of the weather.
Littleton resident Sue Glick said she was not surprised to see the number of voters in attendance.
“It looks like the people have decided to come out despite the weather and the road conditions,” she said. “I think that people want to come out and have their voices heard and show their support for the particular candidate they favor.”
A squeaker in Calais
The contest also was close in Calais, where Democrats held their caucus at the city building. When it was all over, the candidates were nearly tied. The vote was 27 for Obama and 26 for Clinton, which means that three delegates for each will be sent to the state convention.
Peter Harris, who called Obama the “embodiment of the American dream,” was among the more than 50 people who attended the caucus in Calais.
“Growing up as an African-American in New Hampshire, I was taught not to expect too much and not to hope for too much,” he said. “Still, God blessed me with good parents who taught me how to live my life right.”
At age 40, Harris said, he was willing to live the rest of his life in “quiet apathy.”
“Then this candidate by the name of Barack Obama comes along and he has hope and it’s infectious,” he said. “I think right now it is time for us to step aside and let the younger generation have their turn.”
Harris said the youth of America see hope in Obama, “and so do I.”
Mary Frances O’Kelly said Clinton had her support. “She has enough experience to run the country. She takes no guff from anyone. She is polite and she is intelligent,” O’Kelly said. She said she believed that Obama also would make a great president, but in the future.
Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, said there was a health care crisis in this country and she believed Clinton’s health plan was stronger than Obama’s.
BDN writers Anne Ravana, Walter Griffin, Jen Lynds and Diana Graettinger contributed to this report.