As the nation awaits the results of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Maine Republicans are hoping their party caucuses in February will have more effect on the race than in past years.

That wouldn’t take much.

In recent years, the Maine GOP has had virtually no influence on the national party when it comes to picking its nominee for president, political observers say.

Because of the state party’s small size, Maine Republicans can deliver only 24 delegates to a winning candidate.

And in past years, Maine Republicans have used an “antiquated” system in which local party committees have started their caucuses Jan. 1 and not completed them until March 19, said Amelia Chasse, a York Republican who does communications work for political groups in New Hampshire. By the time the caucus votes are tallied, nobody in the national media is paying attention because the race is usually pretty much over, she said.

By contrast, Democrats, who hold their caucuses in a single day, have been more influential, as they were in 2008 when their endorsement helped President Barack Obama sustain his momentum.

Furthermore, the caucus system favors a fringe candidate such as Ron Paul, who enjoys the enthusiastic support of a relatively small group of people, said Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College. A victory by someone like Paul in Maine would be seen as meaningless from a national perspective, he said.

It is almost as if “the Republican Party of Maine has set up the system to minimize the amount of impact it possibly could have,” said Maisel, a Democrat.

The minimal role played by Maine Republicans could change this year, Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster said. The party is urging local committees to start their caucuses Feb. 4 and finish by Feb. 11. Attendees will participate in a presidential straw poll in addition to choosing delegates for the party’s May 5-6 state convention.

On Feb. 11, the last day of the proposed caucus period, party leaders will announce the results at a “big gathering” in Portland, Webster said.

He expects the announcement will get the attention of the national media.

Although the party tried a similar approach in 2008, many local committees did not participate because the time period was only three days.

This year, party leaders stretched it to eight days and are making a more aggressive effort to get local party committees to vote during that time, said Kim Pettengill of Farmingdale, a state committeewoman from Kennebec County.

“People seem more willing to want to take part this year,” she said.

Dawn Gilbert, chairwoman of the Boothbay Republican Town Committee, said she likes the new system.

“Very definitely, we will have a bigger impact,” she said. “Maine was kind of left behind a lot of times.”

The concentrated caucus schedule increases the likelihood that candidates and their surrogates will campaign in Maine during that period, said Douglas Hodgkin, a retired political science professor at Bates College.

How much influence Maine’s GOP straw poll wields will depend on whether the race is still competitive, said Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports, an independent pollster.

He said he believes that Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, is the only candidate capable of stopping front-runner Mitt Romney.

After the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, Republicans will vote in South Carolina on Jan. 21 and in Florida on Jan. 31. If Santorum falters by then, the race will be over before Maine Republicans vote, Rasmussen said.

“I think the real question is: Will there still be a race going in any serious way after Florida?” he said.

Right now, with the nation focused on the New Hampshire primary, there are few signs of political campaigning in Maine.

The Paul campaign, which opened an office Dec. 15 at 190 Route 1 in Falmouth, appears to be the only campaign with a physical presence in Maine. The campaign is also active on social networking sites, such as Facebook, and on Friday held a “Maine caucus training” session at the Zen Asian Bistro in Bangor.

Two staffers at the Paul campaign office in Falmouth declined to be interviewed, and officials from the national campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, won the Maine caucus during his presidential bid in 2008 and enjoys the support of many of the state’s prominent Republicans, including Attorney General William Schneider, Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney, former U.S. Rep. Dave Emery and Peter Cianchette, former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica.

In 2008, Romney received 52 percent of the caucus vote, McCain 21 percent and Paul 18 percent. Romney may not have a campaign office in the state, but he has a lot of volunteers working for him behind the scenes. Cianchette said.

As of Dec. 5, Mainers had given only $638,000 to Republican candidates, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Romney was in the lead with $43,900, and Paul second with $25,000.

Herman Cain was a distant third at $3,000.

In contrast, President Obama had amassed a war chest of $458,000 from Maine contributors.

Cianchette said the fundraising gap between Romney and Obama developed because there have been very few fundraising events in Maine for Romney. Michelle Obama held a well-publicized fundraiser for the president in Maine last year.

“As we move though the election cycle, we will see more (fundraising) opportunities,” he said.


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