Politics Down East

The other night the Republicans in this tiny coastal village threw a grand old party. They held it in the Community Center - a white clapboard building with green trim and a flag on the gable over on the back road to Hope - and a $ 100-a-plate fund-raiser it was not. Not hardly, as they say in these parts. For although this town is named after the Republican Party's most illustrious President, it's a long way from here to Dallas, where the national GOP held its gathering a few days earlier before these folks held theirs. Just how far became evident to us as the evening wore on.

To start with, of course, the atmosphere was a bit different. Herb Hutchings , general manager of the Penobscot Poultry Company up in Belfast, provided the chickens, which he helped barbecue over a bed of coals in the parking lot. A couple of farmers from the district donated the corn on the cob. Back in the kitchen, the local ladies served it all up on paper plates, with salad and chips and rolls and a wedge of watermelon. We ate at folding tables in the large hall with flowered fire-engine-red curtains and wall-mounted lights shaped like clipper ships. It cost $5 ($2.50 for children, who were very much part of the festivities), and it was arguably the best chicken I've ever eaten.

Which is a good thing, because people like Loyall Sewall are going to be eating a lot of Maine chicken between now and election day. He's the GOP state chairman. In that post, of course, he's got to be tactful. He knows the old electoral adage that ''As Maine goes, so goes the nation.'' He knows, too, that some of his Yankees disagree sharply with President Reagan on issues like abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment.

So what did he think of Dallas? On balance, he says, ''the whole thing came out positive.'' He thinks the networks, looking for controversy, exaggerated the divisions within the party. ''I believe the President is going to run very well in Maine,'' he says.

I found his wife, Charlotte, standing near the white wooden pillar that holds up the ceiling. A state senator, she's the senior Republican woman in the delegation at Augusta. She thought the Dallas affair was both too programmed and too bland. ''I like a good old rip-rap-roaring debate every once in a while,'' she said, noting that ''there's plenty of room for us to have our own ideas.''

Which is also a good thing, if Walter Whitcomb is any indication. A young dairy farmer from Waldo, he's in his first race for the Legislature - spending his days cutting hay for the 120 cows he milks and his evenings in a bright green T-shirt with ''Whitcomb for Legislature'' on the back. He comes closest to Mr. Reagan, perhaps, on acid rain: ''The jury is very much still out on that, '' he notes. But he's clearly at odds with the nation's conservatives on questions of international trade. Given the battering Maine has taken from Canada on such things as wood products, potatoes, blueberries, and shoes, he leans strongly toward protectionism.

He sounds, at times, almost like a Democrat. So what makes him a Republican? ''Philosophy,'' he says, after a pause, adding that ''I'm a fiscal conservative.'' Then what did he think of the Dallas convention? ''I had a problem identifying with it, he says - ''a little bit on the right-hand side for me,'' he notes, and too ''opulent.'' He, too, thinks the President will run well in Maine, and he doesn't mind having his own views on things.

Which is also a good thing. It proves once again that, as the nation rolls toward election day, pluralism is alive and well. And it proves that politics, which to so many people looks like little more than show biz and TV personalities, is still a question of people speaking directly to people - eating chicken, shaking hands, and having their own views about matters that, at least in Maine, people really care about.

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