Presidential politics are generating heightened interest in the state’s Republican and Democratic caucuses, organizers said Wednesday.

That’s largely because the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Democratic side has tightened, and the fact that the GOP nod could go to John McCain, Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee.

“The phone has not stopped ringing,” said Maine Republican Party Executive Director Julie O’Brien. “There really is a lot of renewed interest with no clear front-runner.” Everyone is thinking the Republican they favor “is still in it,” she said.

Before Iowa, many Democrats assumed it was a done deal with Clinton as the candidate, said Ed Desgrosseilliers of Auburn, who’ll be running the Auburn Democratic caucus.

Now that it’s a real race between Clinton and Obama, “it’s a lot better for the party, for the caucus and for the nation,” Desgrosseilliers said. “When candidates are challenged, you get a clearer picture about what somebody’s all about.”

Desgrosseilliers said Obama has ignited hope, and his age and message remind him of John F. Kennedy. When Clinton was the front-runner, “She appeared to become a little pompous.” Since Iowa she’s recovered her attachment to the working person, Desgrosseilliers said.

Unlike previous years, there’ll be no June primary when Mainers used to vote for the presidential candidate they’d like to see on the November ballot. The only way Mainers can have a say before the party conventions this summer is to vote at a Democratic or Republican caucus.

The change was made in 2004, “but the typical voter is really confused and embarrassed to ask,” said O’Brien. Both parties are working to get word out about caucuses.

Democrats are holding their caucuses Feb. 10; Republicans from Feb. 1-3. (Feb. 3 is Super Bowl Sunday, so most will be Feb. 1 or 2.)

In general, caucuses attract much lower turnouts than primary elections, said Karl Trautman, chairman of the Social Sciences Department at Central Maine Community College. “A primary takes less energy,” Trautman said. “For a caucus you go in for a period of time.”

Caucuses also leave out Maine’s largest group of Maine voters, the independents or unenrolled, who may be less likely than Democrats or Republicans to spend hours in a caucus meeting.

As of Jan. 3, there were 385,415 independent Maine voters, compared to 308,672 Democrats and 275,167 Republicans, according to the Secretary of State’s office. The Green party has 29,420 voters.

Inviting independents

Spokesmen for both parties said they’re concerned that many Mainers won’t take part in the caucus system. They stressed that any voter who is unenrolled and excited about a particular candidate can take part, even at the last minute.

“Independents are welcome to vote in either caucus,” said Arden Manning, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party. “They can even change their affiliation for the day. We welcome that.” Anyone who does not belong to a party can come to a caucus before it begins, register in the party “and come in and vote,” he said. After the caucus they don’t have to stay a Democrat, Manning said.

However anyone who wants to switch from a party, Green, Democratic or Republican, has to do so earlier, before Jan. 26, he cautioned.

And this year, Democrats are inviting absentee voting. “To vote absentee call the state party headquarters and we’ll send you the ballot,” Manning said. The goal is to increase participation of those who’ll be out of state or too busy to attend the caucus, Manning said.

O’Brien said there’ll be no Republican absentee ballots. “We think that leads to a lot of potential for fraud and abuse.”

Longtime Lewiston Republican organizer Rosemarie Butler said she’s ambivalent about whether Maine should have a primary or caucus system.

There’s no question more voters turn out for a primary, she said. But while convenient, primaries are impersonal.

“People should not be afraid to give a couple of hours,” Butler said. “We have been asking our members to call their Republican friends and bring them. The caucus is their only opportunity to vote for their preference for president. If they don’t come, they will not able to vote (for president) on primary day.”

Desgrosseilliers said he prefers a caucus over a primary election. A caucus “brings you closer to people. It gives you more opportunity to have discussions with people around you.”

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