"As Maine goes, so goes the nation." This old political saying long ago faded into disuse. But this year Democratic and Republican presidential aspirants are paying a lot more campaign attention to the Pine Tree State than in recent decades.
Maine is the only "caucus state" in the Northeast; all the others hold primaries. Those who will represent the state at the Democratic and Republican national conventions next summer are being chosen through a two-stage process beginning with local caucuses.
Democratic caucuses in each city and town Feb. 10 will choose those who will attend a May statewide meeting where the 22 delegates to attend the August national convention will be elected.
Republicans will be having similar municipal caucuses during the next few weeks. The local GOP conclaves, the first of which was held Jan. 15 in Waterville, are picking delegates to a statewide convention April 18- 19 in Bangor, where Maine's 21 seats to the Republican National Convention will be filled.
Long before the Jan. 21 Iowa caucuses, most of the presidential hopefuls had spent at least a couple of days campaigning in Maine. The exceptions were President Carter, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, US Rep. Philip M. Crane of Illinois, and US Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas.
President Carter's campaign, however, appears well organized in the Pine Tree State; Vice-President Walter Mondale, members of the Carter family, and Cabinet members have been very much on the Maine campaign trail.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. have been in the state drumming up support several times in recent weeks. In the wake of the Iowa caucus outcome they are expected to press their Maine campaigns with increasing intensity.
During recent days three of the leading Republican presidential contenders -- Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, former Central Intelligence Agency director George Bush of Texas, and former Texas Gov. John B. Connally -- have campaigned in Maine. US Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois is due back within the week.
Reagan and Crane supporters are urging their candidates to step up activities in Maine and include at least a few hours in the state on their itineraries in the next few weeks.
Bush supporters hope their candidate can maintain the political momentum he gained in his Iowa caucus victory. They note that at an informal GOP gathering in Maine last November, he polled 35 percent of the more than 1,300 Republican-activist votes, besting all other presidential aspirants.
In that first test of strength Senator Baker was a close second, Mr. Connally a distant third, and Mr. Reagan and Congressman Crane trailed even farther behind.
At the January municipal caucus in Waterville, however, Mr. Connally got 17 of the 25 state GOP convention delegates. Mr. Reagan got three others, and the remaining five are "uncommitted".
Bush supporters charge the session, attended by only 50 of some 2,500 local registered Republicans, was held without suitable advance notice.
On the Democratic side the Kennedy campaign has been boosted somewhat by the support of Democratic Gov. Joseph Brennan and former US Sen. William Hathaway.
US Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, perhaps the state's best-known Democrat, has not taken sides in the campaign. Observers generally feel that if he endorses anyone it will be President Carter.
The one-time Democratic presidential candidate said recently that "President Carter has improved immensely over the past three years." At the same time, he described Senator Kennedy as "still unproven after 17 years in the Senate."
Key Carter backers in Maine include former Gov. Kenneth Curtis, now ambassador to Canada, and John O. Martin (D) of Eagle Lake, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.