SANFORD, Maine — It was most definitely a Ron Paul crowd at the Veterans’ Memorial Gym in Sanford, where 22 towns were caucusing Saturday.
The Texas Congressman himself was on hand early in the morning, shaking hands in the chilly winter weather. He did not, however, deliver a speech; he simply greeted those arriving, then sped off to another caucus.
Instead, it was former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who appeared in the hall promptly at 9 a.m., with son Taggart and grandsons Thomas and Joseph in tow. Taggart introduced his father, saying he was “an extraordinarily good person … a wonderful father, a good man, honest, who loves his country and loves God.”
It did not help him much with the difficult audience of 500 or so; they were little more than polite as Romney delivered his standard anti-Washington, anti-Obama, America-first stump speech. The guitar player who opened the show with a rousing “I love America” ditty was accorded far more enthusiasm.
But as the candidate turned to leave the hall, a bunch of caucus-goers leapt to their feet and began chanting “Ron Paul! Ron Paul!” to Romney’s obvious discomfiture.
The Republican primary process has always been a two-man race; the problem is, it is never the same two men. Romney, the presumptive frontrunner, was soundly beaten in South Carolina’s primary by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and is still smarting from last week’s triple drubbing by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota.
Now he is battling hard to avoid being beaten in Maine by the libertarian gadfly who seems to have captured the hearts and minds of the flinty New Englanders.
“Ron Paul is the only one who speaks the truth,” said Sheila Ouellette, who manages a natural food store in Kennebunk. Ouellette likes Paul’s position on just about everything, from disbanding the Federal Reserve to imposing term limits for senators.
“He is the only one who is different,” said the mother of three, who homeschooled her children and confessed that Paul was the first candidate to move her since Gerry Brown, in 1976. “The others are all the same.”
Philip Olivera, also from Kennebunk, is more combative.
“Don’t ask me why I support Ron Paul,” he said. “Because I’ll tell you.”
In explanation, he thrust forward a document he had composed, entitled “Why Ron Paul?” In it he outlined the candidate’s virtues as a true free market libertarian, ending by saying “Ron Paul is the only candidate who stands against this broken system.”
“The biggest threat to our national security is the devaluation of our currency,” he said, to nods from those around him.
Paul has preached widely against US monetary policy, advocating a return to the gold standard and an end to the unrestricted printing of money.
These themes play well with the Maine Republicans. Prominently displayed in the gym was the York County Republican banner, with an elephant trumpeting proudly over the slogan “Less Tax, Less Government, More Freedom.”
According to caucus rules, each candidate had assigned speakers; Romney, of course, spoke for himself. Paul had two representatives, both of whom delivered rousing speeches to thunderous applause.
The other two candidates were barely in play: neither Santorum nor Gingrich campaigned actively in Maine.
Gingrich’s representative was greeted with indifference, but Ralph Gennario, a Maine resident who spoke for Santorum, ran into real trouble when he attacked the crowd’s favorite.
“Ron Paul’s isolationist foreign policy will invited a second Holocaust,” he said, to loud boos and hisses from the crowd.
“Ron Paul is not isolationist, he is a non-interventionist,” said Theo Shufelt, a 21-year-old resident of North Berwick, Maine. “We are in so many places we shouldn’t be.”
Shufelt rolled his eyes when asked if Paul’s widely touted “legalize drugs” policy had had any influence on his choice for president. Paul has been labeled the “bong candidate” by those who think his following among youth has more to do with his freewheeling stance on personal liberty than on government policy.
“No, I am for Dr. Paul because we need a future,” said the serious young man. “We will not have a country in a few years if we do not do something about our debt.”
Maine residents take their politics seriously, but the caucuses are more than a bit chaotic. The process can take weeks, if not months, and at the end of it all, not much happens.
Saturday is supposedly the last day in a weeklong series of caucuses; in reality, Maine has been holding such gatherings since January and will continue, sporadically, until March. Efforts by the state GOP committee to corral the fiercely independent local organizations into strict time limits have met with only limited success.
Nevertheless, the majority of Maine’s towns will have completed their straw polls by Saturday, and the results will be announced in the evening.
Downstairs at the Veterans’ Memorial Gym, debates continued amid bubble-gum-pink ham salad and elaborate cupcakes.
Small groups gathered and separated, voices were raised and fingers were pointed.
“NAFTA is killing this country,” said local resident Steve Michaud, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1994 by the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada. In his estimation Ron Paul is the only one who can put the country back on rack.
“I think Paul has a shot at winning,” he said. “Remember, in 1992, Maine voted for [Independent candidate] Ross Perot. He came in second in the general election, right behind Bill Clinton. He outpolled [George H.W.] Bush, the incumbent president, who was from Maine. That’s the kind of people we are.”