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Seacost Online - The Race for Mainer's Hearts

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Seacost Online - The Race for Mainer's Hearts

They're not quite saying "ayah" - at least not yet - but both candidates for the Maine's U.S. District 1 congressional race say victory in November will depend on their success not necessarily as the torchbearer of their party but as the Mainer who can out-Maine the opponent.

Democrat Chellie Pingree talks about extolling "common-sense, practical, Maine-type ideas." Republican Charlie Summers says he'll "deal with people in a plain-speaking, Maine way."

It's a message that could well resonate with voters, said Mark Brewer, political science professor at the University of Maine.

"Each candidate has a legitimate shot at winning. You could construct a reasonable case for both of them," he said.

Both candidates have deep ties to the Pine Tree State and, although initially from the Midwest - Summers is from Illinois, Pingree is from Minnesota - they have spent most of their adult lives in Maine. Both are former state senators, but also have national experience - Summers as regional administrator of the Small Business Administration and Pingree as president of the consumer advocacy group Common Cause.

But Mainer or no Mainer, said Brewer, in a presidential election year, it's hard to discount national picture.

"You've got a Democratic candidate for president bringing new people into the party at a record pace," said Brewer of Sen. Barack Obama. At the same time, "Republicans are leaving the House in droves. I think there's something like 30 who have decided not to run for re-election."

For these reasons, to say nothing of President Bush's 30 percent approval rating, Summers needs to make sure the Mainer moniker sticks firmly to him.

"He needs to emphasize that he's a Maine Republican, he's an Olympia Snowe Republican," said Brewer. This would seem to be an easy case to make, as Summers was Snowe's state director for nearly 10 years. "Mainers love Olympia, more than Susan Collins. If he can get her out there for him, all the better for him, and I'm sure she'd be willing to do that.

"He needs to prove he's not a George Bush Republican, not a John McCain Republican. He's an Olympia Snowe Republican," Brewer said.

Summers broadens that field out a bit to include such Maine political giants as Margaret Chase Smith on the Republican side, but also former Sens. George Mitchell and Edmund Muskie on the Democratic side.

"People in Maine expect you to put the state of Maine first," he said. "Everyone has partisan moments, but at the end of the day, you move the process forward."

On at least one issue, however, Summers' views are more in lockstep with the president than with the Maine congressional delegation. Just this past week, Bush proposed and McCain backed a call for new offshore drilling of oil. It is a move Summers supports, although both Snowe and Collins do not.

"We don't have the luxury in this country to say we won't go after our own oil," he said, adding that the oil drilled can "buy us time" to work on alternative sources of energy, which he also supports.

Summers concedes "to a point, sure there is" an environmental price to pay for the drilling, "but Americans need to have access to clean oil."

Pingree is quick to pounce on this point, saying such a move will only play to the "blatant greed" of oil companies, who are already receiving unfair tax breaks that she wants to see end.

She said she's convinced that Mainers do not want to see more offshore drilling, especially as it's a coastal state, and says Summers is "out of step" with residents on this issue.

But their differences do not end there. Looking toward the fall, it's clear to see the issues that both will be emphasizing, with each feeling he or she has captured the essence of what Mainers want on health care, Iraq and the economy.

Linking Summers to the GOP is a strategy Pingree's going to have to continue to employ in the months to come, said Brewer.

"If I were her, I'd link him to the national Republican Party as much as I could," he said.

But Pingree has to be careful, too, not to make any gaffes or missteps that Summers can use to his advantage, said Brewer. For example, she would be wise not to repeat the campaign strategy used when she ran against Collins for U.S. Senate in 2002.

"Before she even introduced herself to voters, she went on the attack against Collins. That's not how campaigns are conducted in Maine," he said. "Collins used that against her and got a lot of traction on that. She decimated her. But I think Pingree's probably learned from her mistakes."

Having said that, however, Pingree has to be considered the early frontrunner, he said. For one, it's a good year to be a Democrat. But just as importantly, "the 1st District has become increasingly Democratic over the last decade," he said.

Brewer said the district has become more urban, more educated, more racially and ethnically diverse (he said that with tongue fairly firmly in cheek, adding "if you're going to find diversity anywhere in Maine it's here."), all of which "tends to favor the Democratic Party."

Brewer said for this reason, Summers is going to have to "raise enough money to be competitive," which he estimated would be at least $2 million. As for how much he thinks Pingree is capable of raising, he said "I can't even guess. She's already going at a pretty good clip."

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