Voters Are Confused As Bevy of Candidates Flock for Maine Posts

IF Maine is fed up with incumbent politicians, voters here are experiencing an unusual treat with a feast of new candidates from which to choose in tomorrow's primary elections.

Ever since the state's legendary Sen. George Mitchell (D) announced his decision last March not to run for reelection, scores of new candidate running for governor, Congress, and the state legislature have come out of the woodwork.

Senator Mitchell's surprise decision left candidates scrambling for his and other newly opened offices. Maine's only two members of Congress - United States Reps. Olympia Snowe (R) and Thomas Andrews (D) - both threw their hats into the ring in the race for Mitchell's Senate seat, each leaving their own congressional seats open.

Of the five major elected offices in Maine, four will have open elections this year, including the Senate seat, the governorship, and the state's two congressional seats. No incumbents are running in any of the four races. ``It has been like a cataclysm here. It's like the ground opened up, the cork came out of the bottle, and everybody moved up the ladder,'' says Christian Potholm, government and legal studies professor at Bowdoin College.

Though candidates are clearly energized by this year's unusual election, voters are unclear as to who is running for what office. ``It's confusing because there are so many candidates out there,'' says Ben Coes, executive director of the Maine Republican Party. ``It has forced the candidates to really go out and sell themselves at bean suppers, town meetings, and on Main Street.''

Candidates have much to talk about. The lackluster economy is a key issue in this state, wracked by a recession and defense industry cutbacks. Loring Air Force Base, a major employer in northern Aroostook County, will be closed this fall. Bath Iron Works, a shipbuilding company, has cut its work force from 12,000 to 9,000. Meanwhile, a state budget shortfall has forced employee layoffs, government shutdowns, and program cutbacks.

Among the candidates vying for governor are eight Republicans, five Democrats, and two independents. Four Democrats and four Republicans are competing for Maine's First Congressional District seat, while the Second District race lists seven Democrats and four Republicans.

Few front runners are emerging, however, due to a large percentage of undecided voters.

One exception is the Democratic governor's race in which former Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan (D) is holding a significant lead in polls. Mr. Brennan, who has served two terms as governor, starting first in 1982 and then in 1986, was also twice elected to the US House. Though some criticize him as a ``career politician,'' Mr. Brennan touts his experience in creating jobs, reforming education, and balancing the state budget as governor.

``People want change in the state,'' said Brennan in an interview here after a Biddeford campaign appearance. ``But some things never go out of style, like competence and effectiveness.''

AMONG the field of GOP contenders, Sumner Lipman, a state representative from Augusta, has done well in recent polls. He is followed by Susan Collins, former regional chief of the federal Small Business Administration, and state Senate Minority Leader Pamela Cahill.

A bevy of known and unknown contenders are vying for the state's two congressional seats. Leading the Democrats in the First District is Dennis DuTremble, president of the state Senate. On the Republican side, Candidates Kevin Keogh, former state GOP party chairman, and James Longley, Jr., son of former Maine Gov. James Longely (I), will be battling it out.

For the Second District, Bangor restaurant owner John Baldacci will be fighting it out against Jim Mitchell, nephew of retiring Senator Mitchell on the Democratic side. Though Mr. Mitchell enjoys statewide name recognition due to his uncle, Mr. Baldacci has attracted a number of supporters around the state through his spaghetti-dinner political events. Strong possibilities for the Republican side include the charismatic state Rep. Richard Bennett and state House Minority Leader Stephen Zirnkilton.

The Senate contest will pick up after the primary since both Representatives Snowe and Andrews are running unchallenged within their parties. Issues seem less important than the candidates themselves, notes Ken Hayes, University of Maine political science professor.

``Andrews is a liberal legislator. Snowe is essentially a pro-business moderate,'' Mr. Hayes says. ``I think this is going to be very much a personality contest.''

About 60 percent of Maine's electorate are independents, so the success of independent Senate candidate Angus King, already waging a TV advertising blitz, will be closely watched in the general election Nov. 8. A businessman and former public television talk show host, Mr. King promises to rejuvenate state government as a nonpartisan conciliator.

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