AUGUSTA (AP) – Iowa and New Hampshire are getting most of the attention with their January caucus and primary as presidential the nominating process gains momentum, but Maine’s Democratic caucuses are just shy of seven weeks away.

Already, four of the nine candidates and one surrogate have visited Maine, whose party caucuses are scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 8. Maine does not have presidential primaries.

The caucuses to be held in towns and cities throughout the state will determine which delegates will attend the party’s state convention next May.

At the state convention, Maine’s 24 delegates to the Democratic National Convention to be held in Boston in July will be chosen.

With only four of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election, Maine’s relative importance in the presidential selection process is open to debate.

Some observers, remembering the narrowness of President Bush’s victory in 2000 over Democrat Al Gore, say Maine could gain more prominence in the eyes of candidates and their supporters as the campaign goes on.

“I think they are going to pay attention to us,” said Dorothy Melanson, chairwoman of the Maine Democratic Party. “If there was a lesson in the last election, it was that everyone in the electoral system counts.”

The Democratic frontrunner’s campaign is taking Maine’s caucuses seriously.

“It is very important that Howard Dean ‘win’ in this process. That means that there needs to be Howard Dean support in every municipality across the state,” says the former Vermont governor’s Web site.

Oliver Woshinsky, University of Southern Maine political science professor emeritus, doesn’t think Maine will play much of a role in the primary season.

“Maine is small. It’s not so much the smallness because New Hampshire is small, but the positioning and the timing,” Woshinsky said.

Candidates Dean and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts both have full-time staffs working in Maine. Both were in the state Nov. 8 for the Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio have also visited Maine, as did Rep. Dick Gephardt’s daughter Chrissy.

The Republican Party’s caucuses will be held throughout February.

On the Net:

Maine Democratic Party:

AP-ES-12-22-03 1031EST

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