Maine Democrats survey the field for Sunday’s caucus

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(Host) On Sunday, Democrats in Maine will head to local meeting halls to vote by caucus for a presidential nominee. Howard Dean, who hasn’t had a win so far, and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich are hoping to get boost their campaigns with a good showing.

Maine Public Radio’s chief political correspondent Fred Bever reports.

(Bever) Sunday’s caucus will be the sole election on the national schedule that day, making it a destination for some or all of the candidates who have visited Maine already: Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and retired General Wesley Clark.

Kucinich has made the strongest personal pitch so far – visiting Maine five times this campaign season, targeting college campuses and left-leaning Democrats. But for a long time, the real contest in Maine appeared to be between Dean and Kerry, both of whom showed up for the Democrats annual Jefferson Jackson dinner in December.

Back then, Kerry was down in the New Hampshire polls, and his speaking style a bit wooden. Dean – in his full-throated call-to-arms mode – cut a more dynamic figure.

(Dean) “We’re going to get three or four million people to the polls this time that either didn’t vote last time or voted third party. And this time, we’re going to have more votes than George Bush and this time, when we do, the person with the most votes is going to the White House.”

(Bever) The Democrats who packed the room loved it. Many of them wore “Dean for America” buttons, and many knew him personally or knew of him as the budget-balancing New England governor long before he transformed himself into the anti-war firebrand.

Dean’s bumper stickers proliferated through January. He was attracting support from party regulars and fundraisers in Maine, and he scored big endorsements, including Maine’s House speaker and the union that represents state and municipal workers. Things have changed a bit since then.

(Kerry) “The one person in the United States of America who deserves to be laid off is George Bush, and that’s what we’re going to do…”

(Bever) John Kerry visited Portland on Thursday, rallying what now appears to be a growing bandwagon in Maine and across the country. Dean says he’s uncowed, despite being knocked far off the frontrunner’s pedestal by multiple losses over the last two weeks.

Dean insists he will compete for Maine’s 24 pledged delegates and gain enough delegates from big states like Wisconsin to stay in the race. Today his campaign is saying that he collected $800,000 in the last 24 hours.

(Dean) “Momentum is a funny thing. I know because I had a lot of it and then it disappeared and you’ve got to work hard to get it back. You know, Maine is a lot like Vermont. Oftentimes they will in Maine take a real step to try to have fundamental change. So I’m real optimistic about the caucuses in Maine.”

(Bever) In previous caucuses and primaries, Maine Democrats have bucked the trend. They’ve handed big percentages to underdogs like Jerry Brown or Bill Bradley. Yet it’s Kucinich who may be able to claim the true contrarian vote in Maine, while Dean may suffer attrition among more mainstream Democrats – like Ann Schaff of Portland – who have thrown their allegiance to Kerry.

(Schaff) “Um, I decided John Kerry was my man when Howard Dean sort of went off the deep end.”

(Bever) Some state leaders who once supported Dean are now ducking for cover. Maine House Speaker Patrick Colwell, for instance, declined to be interviewed for this story. Still, some remain faithful – like Carolyn Corrao of Kennebunk. Corrao attended the Kerry event Thursday to see if he might make a good backup if Dean fares too poorly in Washington and Michigan on Saturday.

(Corrao) “Let me make myself clear: I love Howard Dean, I love that man. He gave the Democratic Party back [its] voice, and he says everything I think we’ve all wanted to say, because we are so angry. Although, that’s what the Republican Party wants to paint us as – angry. But we have every right to be angry.”

(Bever) Even Kerry allows Dean some credit for waking up party passions.

(Kerry) “Absolutely. I think he deserves credit for more than that. I think Howard Dean deserves a lot of credit for the campaign that he’s run and other things. But I think it’s too early for me to be assign judgment on Howard Dean’s campaign. We still have a campaign and I’m still campaigning.”

(Bever) So is Howard Dean. He’s been aggressively courting telephone interviews in Maine, and plans to visit the state on Sunday for the caucus, as does Kucinich. Also on the Maine ticket are the Reverend Al Sharpton, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, and retired General Wesley Clark. About 13,000 Democrats are expected to turn out for the Sunday caucus.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Fred Bever in Portland, Maine.

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