AUGUSTA (AP) – While political activists in Maine consider their choices among presidential candidates during these lulling summer months, the presidential campaigns are sounding out activists as a first step toward putting field organizations in place.

In the crowded Democratic field, the early advantage may be with the two New Englanders who can call themselves Maine neighbors – Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont.

On the Republican side, President Bush will be hoping to reverse a Democratic string of presidential election victories in Maine that included his own loss in 2000 and his father’s defeat in 1992.

Through mid-July, much of the candidate contact with the Maine Democratic Party came through national campaign representatives, according to state committee Executive Director Aymie Walshe.

“As far as they’ve let us know, none of the campaigns have officially hired state directors yet,” she said recently.

Some in-state organizers have been lined up, though, and partisans are trying to drum up support for their favorites on their own.

Still, given a variety of factors, the primary election contest in Maine is at a very early stage.

“There’s not much going on quite yet here, I don’t think,” said Patricia Eltman, a consultant from South Portland with experience on past national presidential campaigns.

Earlier this month, the Bush campaign announced that Jim Tobin, the founder of a Bangor-based communications and political consulting company, will serve as New England regional campaign chairman.

Tobin’s resume includes stints as national political director for Forbes for President, Northeast political director for the Republican Senatorial Committee under Sen. Bill Frist, and regional political director at the Republican National Committee.

While Republicans can concentrate on a re-election effort, Democrats must decide on one of a host of contenders.

A national poll released Thursday showed former vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman had the most support from Democratic voters, followed closely by Dick Gephardt, Kerry and Dean.

Lieberman, a senator from Connecticut, was at 21 percent and Gephardt, a Missouri representative, was at 16 percent – within the error margin of plus or minus 5 percentage points in the Quinnipiac University poll.

Kerry was at 13 percent and Dean was at 10 percent.

Another poll by the Field Research Institute earlier this month showed Dean, Kerry and Lieberman bunched together in the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates in California.

Both polls showed large undecided blocs.

“For the most part, all of the campaigns have mostly been focused on fund raising,” said Anthony Corrado, who teaches government at Colby College.

Smaller states like Maine don’t get a lot of attention from candidates at this stage, he said, “given the fact that they’re spending most of their time in the big cities raising money and Iowa and New Hampshire.”

Corrado suggests that polling aside, three candidates to date – Kerry, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Dean – are on track to raise enough money to compete in an expensive primary fight, while two others – Lieberman and Gephardt – have not done as well as they expected.

As a one-among-many state in terms of political importance, Maine may offer special opportunities and perils for Kerry and Dean, Corrado says.

Both would naturally want to show strength in their home region and both could be buoyed by an affinity for and familiarity with regional issues.

At the same time, Corrado notes, squandering a home field advantage would be costly.

“You don’t want to lose at home,” he said.

In 2000, Al Gore defeated Bill Bradley in Maine’s Democratic primary election by 54 percent to 41 percent. Bush bested Sen. John McCain of Arizona in Maine’s GOP voting by 51 percent to 44 percent.

Gore went on to take Maine’s general election, outpolling Bush by 49 percent to 44 percent as Ralph Nader claimed 6 percent of the vote.

Next year, Maine Democrats plan to hold their municipal caucuses on Feb. 8.

The caucuses – offering optional absentee voting – will determine the apportionment of delegates to the Democratic State Convention based on declared presidential preference.

AP-ES-07-25-03 1213EDT

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