AUGUSTA (AP) – Backers of John Kerry hope to capitalize on the momentum generated by his front-runner status while the forces of Howard Dean count on residual strength from early in-state organizing as Maine Democrats head to municipal caucuses Sunday to declare their presidential preference.

Tallies designed to award 24 national delegates are slated around the state, with some gatherings not expected to report results until at least early evening.

Handicappers give longshot Dennis Kucinich a chance to cash in on anti-establishment disaffection that has propelled back-of-the-pack candidates toward the top in Maine in the past.

Concentrating elsewhere in the national campaign, John Edwards and Wesley Clark are even more unpredictable presences.

Kerry, buoyed by last week’s endorsement from Gov. John Baldacci while visiting Portland, carries the label of favorite.

On Saturday, in the anything but Democratic bastion of Kennebunkport, caucus convenor Michael Macleod-Ball said Sunday’s contest was shaping up as an enthusiastic battle among “several legitimate candidates.”

Macleod-Ball also said he expected high attendance.

Four years ago, he recalled, about 30 town Democrats turned out to apportion 10 seats to the state convention. This year, he predicted, “I think we’re going to have as high a turnout as we’ve ever had.”

As a longtime Dean supporter, Macleod-Ball conceded that Kerry may well benefit in Maine from his favorable position elsewhere.

But at the same time, Macleod-Ball said, Dean should not be counted out and “if he somehow pulls this one out, I won’t be completely surprised.”

Kucinich, too, he suggested, stood to benefit from the same sort of sentiments that rewarded Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown in previous Maine voting.

“This is the kind of event that’s tailor-made for him,” Macleod-Ball said. “He’s that candidate this time around.”

In Kennebunkport, for decades the summer home of the Bush family, Republicans outnumber Democrats about 2-1.

Macleod-Ball pegged the voter breakdown in the town at 1,175 Republicans, 605 Democrats, 862 unenrolled registrants and 50 Greens.

He said the state party’s experiment with advance voting had produced about 20 absentee ballots.

Maine Democratic Party Chairwoman Dorothy Melanson has forecast a statewide turnout of 12,000 to 15,000 caucus participants. National delegates will be allocated officially at the state party convention in May.

Party officials expect to get first results around 3 p.m., with a vote tally at roughly 9 p.m.

A winter storm moved through the state Saturday, making travel difficult at times, but the forecast called for a partly sunny Sunday in most places, windy and cold.

Democratic organizers were tying up loose ends.

“I’ve been fielding calls with last minute caucus questions,” reported Aymie Walshe, the executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, at the party’s headquarters in Augusta.

AP-ES-02-07-04 1406EST

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