Obama takes early lead in Maine caucus

Democrats overlooked the snowy weather and turned out in heavy numbers for municipal caucuses Sunday, giving Barack Obama a slight lead over Hillary Rodham Clinton in early tallies for the party’s party presidential nominee.

Democrats in 420 Maine towns and cities were deciding how the state’s 24 delegates will be allotted at the party’s national convention in August. Despite the weather, turnout was “incredible,” party executive director Arden Manning said.

With 11 percent of the participating precincts reporting, Obama had a narrow lead over clinton Clinton, 175 to 168, with four uncommitted.

The voting came a day after Obama and Clinton made personal appeals here, and after Obama picked up wins in Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington.

Organizers had expected heavy participation at the caucuses, but up to 8 inches of snow and Arctic cold were expected when many of the gatherings were scheduled. Even so, Democrats started Sunday with more than 4,000 absentee ballots in hand.

Manning said the weather wouldn’t hurt turnout. In Bangor, the caucus started late because so many people showed up that they were lined up outside the door, he said.

In Portland, waterlogged Democrats carrying “Obama” and “Hillary” signs waited to get into the citywide caucus at Portland High School in separate lines that snaked nearly three city blocks in opposite directions.

Colin Johnson, an Obama supporter, said the Illinois senator is not a typical politician. “I’m convinced he’s a once-in-a-generation leader,” he said.

“He’s young and energetic and Washington and the White House could benefit from some fresh air,” said Joe Lewis, another Obama supporter.

But Tony Donovan said Obama can use some more seasoning. Donavan was supporting Clinton because she, like him, was a baby boomer who shared similar values and because she has the experience and the team to lead in Washington.

“Obama’s a great guy. He’ll be great in eight years,” Donovan said. “He doesn’t have the experience in the Senate. He doesn’t have the experience in Washington. He’s not ready.”

Though Maine’s delegate count is small, Clinton and Obama, along with surrogates, came to the state Saturday as their campaigns drew tighter after Super Tuesday.

Thousands of people packed the Bangor Auditorium to hear Obama on Saturday and hundreds more who weren’t allowed inside greeted him as he arrived. People also were stopped at the door as Clinton held a town hall-style gathering nearby at the University of Maine at Orono. She later stopped in Lewiston.

Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, and husband, Bill, also visited, while Obama supporter Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts campaigned in two cities in the days before the vote.

Both campaigns hit Maine heavily with radio and TV advertising, and voters’ homes were being called with pre-taped messages in support of both candidates. On Sunday, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, were scheduled to visit Maine caucuses on Obama’s behalf.

On Clinton’s side, Maine Gov. John Baldacci, Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern and New York Rep. Gregory Meeks were to campaign.

The high level of excitement across the state contrasted with earlier expectations that the post-Super Tuesday timing of the caucuses would dampen voter interest.

A competitive GOP race a week earlier also helped to enliven interest in the Maine Republicans nonbinding caucuses, which were won by Mitt Romney. He dropped out of the race last week, making it likely that Arizona Sen. John McCain would become the GOP nominee.