Maine Republicans start weeklong caucuses

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AUGUSTA — As Republicans gathered Saturday for presidential caucuses around Maine, Sen. Olympia Snowe found herself in the unusual position of having to campaign for GOP votes as she shored up support and touted her fiscal conservatism in the first primary race of her political career.

Snowe praised Republicans for their success in taking control of the the Blaine House and both chambers of the Legislature and talked about the need for the GOP to rally around a candidate who can beat Democratic President Barack Obama. She then turned her attention briefly to her own race.

“I’ve always been a Republican. I grew up a Republican,” said Snowe, pointing out that she supports GOP candidates up and down the ticket, and even made contributions and helped gather signatures for her opponent, Scott D’Amboise, during his unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2006.

D’Amboise said it’s nothing personal against Snowe, but he told the packed school gymnasium that Maine needs a “conservative Republican senator.”

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GOP activists across the state were asked to caucus between Feb. 4 and 11, and more than 30 caucuses were held Saturday in schools, town halls and fire stations from Saco to Presque Isle. Local caucus leaders were asked to keep the votes under wraps until Feb. 11, when results of the nonbinding straw poll will be released.

In Augusta, boisterous Ron Paul supporters greeted party members outside Farrington Elementary School with a Paul-inspired song played to the tune of “New York, New York.” Paul, the only candidate to personally campaign in Maine, enjoyed strong support and hoped to snare at least some delegates.

Mitt Romney’s son Tagg, accompanied by his own son Joe, told party faithful that Obama is “well-liked by a lot of Americans but his policies have been disastrous.” He said his father has the business experience and self-discipline to find solutions to tough problems in Washington.

Four years ago, Romney came in second place behind John McCain, and Paul came in third during Maine’s caucuses. Romney and Paul still have strong organizations in Maine, while there’s been less of a presence for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

Paul, who was campaigning Saturday in Minnesota, seemed to enjoy support from a broad spectrum of Republicans, including at least a few people who previously supported Obama.

Bob O’Connor and Linda Silvia of China both voted for Obama in 2008, with O’Connor going so far as to change his registration from independent to vote in the state’s Democratic caucuses. On Saturday, both had changed from unenrolled to Republican so that they could cast their tallies for Paul.

“Obama has disappointed everybody. I don’t know what they told him when he closed the doors to the Oval Office after he took the oath, but he ain’t performing,” said Silvia.

Obama was one thing the GOP could agree on. Snowe received a roar of approval when she said, “We have to pull out all the stops to ensure that President Obama is a one-term president.”

Republicans were also caucusing in Nevada on Saturday.

Snowe, for her part, faces the first Republican primary challenge of a career that dates over 14 elections to her time in the Maine Legislature.

Both challengers tout themselves as more conservative than Snowe, one of a dying breed of Northeastern Republicans who’re fiscal conservatives and social moderates. D’Amboise sees himself as a constitutional conservative, while Andrew Ian Dodge has touted his tea party credentials.

The tea party made its voice loud and clear in 2010 when it took over the party platform at the state convention, helped propel now-Gov. Paul LePage past six challengers in the GOP primary, and ignited a fire that helped the GOP take over both chambers of the Maine Legislature.

Snowe said it’s not so much that the GOP has shifted further to the right. Instead, she sees a growing sense of frustration with politics in general by libertarians, Constitutionalists and conservatives.

“We’ve seen this explosion in debt and people aren’t seeing any positive changes in their own lives. They’re worried about the indebtedness of future generations,” she told The Associated Press. “We have to decide how we’re going to achieve the ultimate goal. That’s important to the overall Republican Party. You have to build a consensus,” she added.

She said she was taking her challengers seriously.

Snowe, Dodge and D’Amboise were all making the rounds at caucuses. After finishing up in Augusta, D’Amboise and Snowe headed to Bangor for one of the state’s biggest caucuses. Dodge started his day in Old Orchard Beach before joining caucuses in Knox County, which is described as the heart of the state’s tea party movement.

D’Amboise, who has raised more than $500,000 in his bid to defeat Snowe in the GOP primary in June, said America needs to get back to its roots of lower taxes and a smaller government that will stay out of people’s lives. It’ll take a more conservative candidate to do those things, he said.

“People are tired. They’ve had it. It’s like the bully at the playground. You get bullied long enough, then you get tired and you end up fighting back. That’s what’s happening in America right now,” he said.

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