AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Democrats are gearing up for a visit later this month from former President Bill Clinton in hopes that the political icon can help rally the Democratic base around Libby Mitchell in her tough battle for the Blaine House.
Clinton is scheduled to appear with Mitchell at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland on the night of Sunday, Sept. 26. On Thursday, the Mitchell campaign began giving away tickets, first come, first served, to the free rally.
Mitchell campaign staff members estimated that roughly 1,000 tickets would be available, although that number was not concrete. Tickets can be reserved through the website www.mainedems.org/clinton.
“I think it shows how important this race is,” said Arden Manning, who is heading up the Maine Democratic Party’s 2010 campaign efforts. “We are very excited that he has taken some time out of his busy schedule to speak here in Maine.”
Mitchell’s ties to Clinton date back to his presidency.
Clinton appointed Mitchell as chairwoman of the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank in Boston, a post she held for four years. Earlier this year, the former president sent out fundraising appeal letters and recorded a phone message to help Mitchell collect the donations necessary to qualify for public campaign financing.
Mitchell also was a supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 2008 presidential primary and appeared with her husband in Maine during the campaign.
“There has been a long history of the Mitchell family supporting the Clinton family,” said Jesse Connolly, a senior adviser to the Mitchell campaign.
Clinton’s visit comes at a crucial time for Mitchell, a veteran lawmaker from Vassalboro who now serves as president of the state Senate.
The most recent poll, conducted in early September by Public Policy Polling, showed Mitchell 14 points behind Paul LePage, the Republican mayor of Waterville. Earlier polls conducted by other organizations showed a smaller gap between the two but with LePage still out front.
Independent Eliot Cutler of Cape Elizabeth consistently ranks third in the polls, followed by independents Shawn Moody of Gorham and Kevin Scott of Andover.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor who tracks congressional and gubernatorial contests, said the race for governor in Maine is one of the more interesting races nationwide because it is so unpredictable.
Democrats across the country are having trouble galvanizing their base constituencies this year, leading Sabato and seemingly every other political observer to predict significant Republican gains.
But the gubernatorial election in Maine remains designated as a “tossup” in Sabato’s “Crystal Ball,” which boasts 98 percent accuracy in predicting races over the past decade. And while Sabato said Mitchell’s campaign has “some problems” headed into the final six weeks, he said the same about LePage’s. So Clinton could make a difference, he said.
“Nobody energizes the base like Clinton,” said Sabato, director of UVa’s Center for Politics. “He may be able to do it in a way that Obama can’t.”
Sabato and others have credited Clinton with helping Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas win a close primary earlier this summer.
On the GOP side, former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has been avidly campaigning across the country in recent months.
Palin is credited with helping a number of previously lesser-known candidates backed by supporters of the tea party movement defeat Republican “establishment” candidates in their primaries.
One who has received widespread attention this week is Christine O’Donnell, who defeated veteran Republican Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware’s GOP primary for the U.S. Senate.
If Maine’s gubernatorial race tightens, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some household-name Republicans stomp through Maine in support of LePage. His campaign officials say that’s not their priority at this point, though. They also had no comment on Clinton’s visit.
“We really haven’t focused on the big names,” said John McGough, deputy chief of staff for the LePage campaign. “We are focused on reaching out to common voters in towns all across Maine.”
Because Mitchell is receiving public campaign financing, her campaign is barred under the Maine Clean Elections Act from doing any fundraising. That would not stop the Maine Democratic Party or other supporters, however, from arranging a fundraiser with Clinton.
Manning said they are still waiting to hear how much time Clinton will spend in Maine before attempting to schedule any other events with the former president.