EAST MACHIAS — Cheiro and Deleah Honlomarr came early.

The start of Washington County’s long-awaited Republican presidential caucus was still more than two hours away, yet there the Honlomarrs stood Saturday at the entrance to Washington Academy, with a 40-mile drive from Calais under their belt and unbridled anticipation in their eyes.

“We believe there’s going to be a huge turnout,” predicted Cheiro, 72, “and there’s going to be a lot of Ron Paul people here.”

He was right; but alas, there weren’t enough to nudge Paul past Mitt Romney for bragging rights — and not a whole lot else — in Maine’s nonbinding Republican presidential preference poll.

In the end, 306 Washington County Republicans trooped here for a caucus that was postponed by snow last weekend and, in the process, attracted the attention of an entire nation. (In the distant town of Danforth, another 13 party faithful caucused on their own.)

The results: 167 votes for Paul, 86 for Romney, 59 for Rick Santorum, five for Newt Gingrich and two for “other.”

Meaning Paul’s 81-vote win — along with a 25-vote win at a late caucus in neighboring Hancock County — fell far short of the 240 votes he needed to win Maine’s never-ending, never-to-be-forgotten 2012 GOP presidential straw poll.

Did it matter?

Yes and no.

Romney remains the winner of what embattled Republican State Chairman Charlie Webster famously reduced to a “snapshot in time” before it dissolved last week into a hazy collage of ever-changing vote counts.

But Paul could still come out on top in the only tally that really matters — the election of Maine’s 24 national delegates at the state GOP convention in May.

Beyond the partisan nuts and bolts, however, this day had a bigger meaning for those who believed last weekend that their postponed caucus would still count — only to be told by Webster and other state party officials that it wouldn’t.

That decision, now likely to be reversed when the Republican State Committee meets on March 10, clearly played a role in attracting close to triple the number who turned out during the last GOP presidential poll, in 2008.

“We should write to thank Charlie Webster. We should write to thank him,” chuckled Paul Madore, Maine chairman for the Ron Paul campaign, as “Ron Paul 2012” signs sprouted in the small snowbanks outside the building and a steady stream of supporters poured through the door.

For many, this was a first.

“I like (Ron Paul’s) ideas and I think he needs all the help he can get,” said John Peterson, 66, an independent from Machias who enrolled as a Republican upon arriving.

It’s a wonder they let him in. Peterson, 66, had no sooner joined the GOP when he wondered aloud whether Paul, when it’s all said and done, might not make a good running mate for President Barack Obama.

“This is my first experience at doing this kind of thing,” Peterson conceded with a grin.

Linda Schaitberger came down from Cathance Township with her 17-year-old granddaughter, Alexandria Snetsinger, after hearing about all the hoopla last week.

“It was the fact that they were throwing out our votes — that bothered me intensely,” said Schaitberger, a longtime Republican and also a Paul supporter.

Her discomfort, it turned out, had only just begun.

As her granddaughter signed up to vote for the first time (because she’ll be 18 before November, Alexandria can register now), Schaitberger found herself listening dumbfounded while party officials explained that no one from Cathance Township had formally called a caucus.

Translation: Neither Schaitberger nor her daughter could participate in Saturday’s proceedings.

“I’m going to call this party the ‘Republicannibals,’ because that’s what they’re doing to their own people,” Schaitberger muttered. “I’ve been a Republican for 50 years and I will never vote Republican again – in Maine, at least.”

Occasional glitches aside, though, this gathering was a model of organization. Scheduled to run three hours, it was over in just two hours and 40 minutes.

And while the cheering was clearly loudest for Mark Willis, who spoke on behalf of Paul, polite applause greeted even the young woman who stood up for Gingrich and apologized for having no prepared speech.

“That’s not easy,” one older woman said to her neighbor as the lonely Gingrich spokeswoman left the stage. “She’s a brave girl.”

The vote, when it finally came, surprised no one. And as they all shook hands, slapped one another on the back and headed out into the cold, it was clear that even in the glare of the national spotlight — did you hear the New York Times was here? — this much-ballyhooed event began and ended as a gathering of friends.

Debbie and Bob Atwood of Machias, both Romney supporters, showed up at their first caucus not knowing what to expect. The next thing they knew, Bob Atwood had been elected to serve as chairman of the Machias table.

Alas, the Atwoods’ guy lost.

“I wish (Romney) had won; I really do. But what are you going to do?” Debbie said wistfully. “Ron Paul has made such a showing here in Maine. I think that made quite a bit of difference.”

Of course, there still will be hell to pay for all those caucuses elsewhere in Maine that went uncounted for days, and for the maddening inability of Webster and other party leaders to come up with a logical set of rules — not to mention hard numbers — and stick with them.

There also will be a debate on whether the caucuses, with all their quirkiness, should give way to formal presidential primaries like so many other states do.

But God help anyone who still thinks what happened here Saturday didn’t matter or, perish the thought, shouldn’t count.

“I have zero, zero worry that this is not going to be counted,” said an exuberant and noticeably relieved county Chairman Gardner. “Zero worry.”

This, it should be noted, is from the guy who spent much of the week fending off charges that the whole thing was rigged: Because Gardner was a Romney supporter, the theory went, the snowstorm and its aftermath were all art of a grand conspiracy to suppress Washington County’s Paul vote and preserve Romney’s much-needed Maine victory.

It made for great sound bites, but it simply wasn’t true.

“Today was a tremendous day for the process,” Gardner said as he packed up his stacks of papers, “and a tremendous day for Washington County.”

No argument there.


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