AUGUSTA, Maine - It is only partially true that in presidential elections "as Maine goes, so goes the nation." The term emerged in the 19th century because at the time Maine held its elections for statewide and congressional offices in September, not November.
The proximity of the September-November voting made Maine a bellwether for forecasting how the rest of the country would vote. In modern elections, held with the rest of the country in November, Maine chose Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960; Hubert Humphrey over Nixon in 1968 (it went for Nixon in 1972), Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in 1976, Al Gore and John Kerry over George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, respectively.
Maine's two senators are "moderate" Republicans and the state has a Democratic governor. This is no conservative bastion.
At the GOP state convention last weekend, at which I was invited to speak, the crowd, more than 2,000 strong, was enthusiastic but represented a small portion of Maine's electorate. According to GOP state chairman Mark Ellis, self-identified Republicans make up the smallest number of Maine's voters (28 percent, he says) with about 32 percent registered Democrats, and 34 percent Independents. Five percent belong to the Green Party.
Ellis told me the Republican Party is in "dire straits" in Maine, "as it is in all of the Northeast." Too many see the party "caving in" to liberal demands, he said. Party activists believe "we should stand firm." Ellis says the division between social and economic conservatives has become wider and only Sen. John McCain can hold it together with his appeal to moderates.
One of those moderates is Sen. Susan Collins, who is running for a third term. In her speech she got off several crowd-pleasing lines. Referring to Barack Obama's problems with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Collins said, "When Republicans distance themselves from their pastor, all it means is we're sitting in a pew in the back of the church." In a reference to Sen. Hillary Clinton's claim of coming under fire while visiting Bosnia as first lady, Collins said, "He (McCain) does not need to embellish his record with tales of being under fire. He has been under fire."
In an interview, I asked Collins the main reason Republicans lost their congressional majority and are struggling to regain a political foothold in what looks like a big year for Democrats. She said, "There was an explosion of and increase in spending." In an implied criticism of President Bush, she said, "The president has taken a hard line against spending only in the last year."
Despite some polling that does not favor Republicans, Collins predicts McCain will be the next president. She thinks it would help him if he spoke more about the sacrifices he's made for the country. Asked whom she'd like to see as McCain's vice presidential pick, Collins said that someone with executive experience in business "would be helpful."
"Mitt Romney?" I asked. Romney received a warm reception from delegates when he gave the keynote address Friday night. Collins said she "likes" Romney. After the rancor between Romney and McCain during the primary campaign, however, it might take a dose of pragmatism reminiscent of the Kennedy-Johnson shotgun political wedding to make that happen.
Ralph Peterson is a middle school principal in Richmond, Maine and a convention delegate. He agrees that "McCain needs a solid conservative running mate" and mentions Romney as a good choice. "People of conservative beliefs want our beliefs defended," said Peterson, who thinks Romney would defend them.
If the state GOP platform is any indication, it appears the party is moving rightward. A large majority of delegates defeated amendments to the platform that would have defined marriage as something other than a contract between a man and a woman and also defeated one that would have liberalized the party's pro-life position. This was a reflection of the conservative activists who dominated the convention rather than a sign that the thinking of a majority of Maine residents, who consistently elect center-left politicians to state and national office, has changed.
To be a conservative Republican in Maine takes a lot of stamina; something like enduring winter up here. Many at the state convention wished that as the nation has gone for conservatives in several recent elections, so would go Maine. But that may take a little longer than the always-late arrival of spring.