Much at stake in GOP primary campaign

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AUGUSTA – There may not be much excitement in the three-way contest for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Maine, but suspense is building anyway.

Somebody, after all, has to win the June 13 primary election.

And if Republican regulars have been slow to enthuse about any one candidate, they still profess optimism that their nominee can defeat Democratic incumbent John Baldacci in November when there are likely to be at least a couple of third-party hopefuls also on state ballots.

The gentlemanly GOP field includes former U.S. Rep. David Emery of St. George, state Sen. Peter Mills of Farmington and state Sen. Chandler Woodcock of Farmington.

To date, there has been no speaking ill of fellow Republicans.

“Obviously, it’s been quite cordial to this point,” says Chris Jackson of the Woodcock campaign.

Many Republicans looking toward the fall don’t seem to mind the mildness.

“You know what? I’ll support any of them,” says state Sen. Jonathan Courtney of Sanford.

Before the GOP contest actually got under way, there was widespread interest in it.

Emery formed an exploratory committee last June, only to say he was scrapping his plan to run when 2002 losing nominee Peter Cianchette announced that he was ready to try again.

Despite Cianchette’s putative status as front-runner, Mills jumped in days later. Two months later, Cianchette dropped out.

By then it was October, but the final field was only just taking shape. Woodcock tossed his hat into the ring, followed by Emery, who’d had another change of heart.

In the months since, Mills and Woodcock devoted much time and effort to successfully qualifying for public campaign financing under Maine’s Clean Election system.

Emery alone is running as a privately funded candidate and, despite having trouble raising money, has sought to cast his choice as a political virtue by emphasizing that he is not asking taxpayers to finance his bid.

For Emery, a big challenge is persuading the most active Republicans that his candidacy offers more than an exercise in nostalgia.

A one-time boy wonder in Maine politics, Emery served in the U.S. House from 1975 to 1982, then took a shot at the U.S. Senate in 1982 but lost to incumbent Democrat George Mitchell.

Emery subsequently served in the Reagan administration as deputy director of the U.S. Arms and Disarmament Agency and ran for office again in 1990. After reversing his position on abortion to pro-choice, he lost a race for the U.S. House to Democrat Thomas Andrews.

Over the years, Emery has labored energetically in Republican vineyards, prominently playing a key role in representing GOP interests in redistricting proceedings. He supported Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential drive in 2000, and McCain came to Maine on Sunday to endorse Emery at a fundraising reception.

“His support is a tremendous boost to our efforts,” Emery said in a statement.

Mills over six legislative terms has been a Republican maverick.

Last year, Mills spearheaded a people’s veto petition drive that prompted lawmakers to drop a controversial borrowing plan and rewrite the pending state budget. Whether that accomplishment soothes Republicans who fret over his moderate record and substantially distinguishes him from Emery, who joined in the people’s veto uprising, remains to be seen.

Electability – that is, which Republican would run strongest in the general election – is central to Mills’ message.

“That’s our theme,” he said Monday.

Woodcock is winding up a third legislative term, all served in the Senate where he spent one two-year stint as assistant minority leader.

The challenge for himself and Mills, he suggests, is making themselves familiar in a contest featuring “maybe two people who are not as well-recognized as the third.”

As for the polite tone of the campaign, Woodcock says it suits him.

“I don’t think we avoid hitting each other hard on policy,” he said. “Politics isn’t personal to me. It’s always policy.”

In criticizing Baldacci for budget “gimmicks and ruses” and calling for enhanced accountability in state finances, Emery has not separated himself from his two rivals.

Mills has denounced Baldacci “budget schemes” and “fire sales.”

Woodcock, meanwhile, has highlighted his support for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights initiative apparently headed for November ballots. A longtime teacher, he also has emphasized his positions on controversial social issues, asserting at the Republican State Convention: “I’m opposed to special rights, and I believe that a marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Four years ago in claiming the Blaine House, Baldacci was unable to win a majority.

In 2002, Baldacci took 238,179 votes for 47.1 percent of the total in the general election, besting Cianchette’s 209,496 votes, which measured 41.5 percent.

Green Independent candidate Jonathan Carter won 46,903 votes, for 9.3 percent, and independent John Michael received 10,612 votes, or 2.1 percent.

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