Mitt Romney speaks; organizers keep eye on Paul supporters

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AUGUSTA – GOP organizers welcomed Maine caucuses winner Mitt Romney on Friday while warily watching insurgent supporters of Ron Paul as the Republican State Convention got under way.

Invited to make the keynote address, Romney praised putative presidential nominee John McCain repeatedly as “tested and proven.”

“He is a known individual and a strong leader,” Romney told reporters.

The former Massachusetts governor shrugged off questions about assuming second place on a Republican ticket.

“I don’t think that’s very likely,” Romney said, adding he came to Maine to support McCain’s candidacy and was not worrying about the vice presidency.

“I just think there are a lot of other very, very good folks,” he said, suggesting that McCain need not be bound to consider someone who had been a rival.

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Opening day of the convention began with a video of McCain soliciting backing from delegates “even if you previously supported another candidate.”

But the day turned into a scheduling nightmare afterward with prolonged elections for a new team of national committeeman and national committeewoman bumping other parts of the agenda, including consideration of a party platform, into Saturday.

Vying to succeed Peter Cianchette, the 2002 Republican nominee for governor who was recently confirmed for the post of U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, as a delegate to the Republican National Committee were former state Senate President Richard Bennett of Oxford and Presque Isle businessman Hayes Gahagan, another former legislator.

A three-way race for the national committeewoman’s post, currently held by Karen Raye of Perry, featured Jan Martens Staples, who served in the position from 1998-2004, former state party chairwoman Kathy Watson of Pittston and Linda Bean of Port Clyde, an L.L. Bean board member and past congressional candidate.

“My candidate is Ron Paul,” Bean told the convention in her campaign remarks, drawing applause from some quarters.

Die-hard supporters of Paul, who developed an avid following in Maine but like McCain trailed well behind Romney in the caucuses last winter, planted signs for the Texas congressman outside the Augusta Civic Center and manned a booth with his campaign literature inside.

Republican State Committee Chairman Mark Ellis said 2,500 delegates and alternates had registered.

Red-hatted McCain backers marshaled a highly visible presence inside the convention hall.

Last weekend in Nevada, Republican Party leaders who were outmaneuvered by raucous Paul supporters abruptly recessed their state convention.

Friday afternoon in Augusta offered a forum for candidates seeking the party’s 1st and 2nd Congressional District nominations.

The 1st District seat is open, with Democratic incumbent Tom Allen the odds-on party favorite to challenge Republican Sen. Susan Collins in November, while 2nd District Democrat Mike Michaud is not generally regarded as vulnerable.

Saturday’s schedule calls for speeches by senior Sen. Olympia Snowe and Collins, who is seeking election this year to a third term.

“2008 is our year,” said state Senate Minority Leader Carol Weston of Montville on Friday morning as legislative candidates were introduced, and Republican partisans have to think so.

Democrats now hold sway at the State House, controlling the governorship, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Former Maine Gov. John McKernan, who is married to Snowe, spoke at crowded luncheon Friday that was staged as a tribute to Merton Henry, a prominent Republican activist for six decades and longtime confidante to the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.

AP-ES-05-02-08 1914EDT

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