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Maine GOPer Is All LeRage

Paul LePage lashes out at reporters, thinks global warming's a "scam," wants President Obama to "go to hell"—and he might just be the Pine Tree State's next governor.

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Most credit LePage's surprise primary victory—and his strength going into the November election—to the legions of volunteers his campaign has mobilized on the ground. The tea party is smaller and more dispersed in Maine than in more populated states, but the movement has fiercely latched onto LePage's campaign, along with devout conservatives who've gone through more traditional political channels to bolster LePage and the GOP's right flank. Having been won over by LePage in Waldoboro, tea party activists like Harring began holding small fundraisers for the campaign—some of them in their own backyards. "Any time there was any party function, a straw poll, or run-of-the-mill campaign event, you might have a smattering of volunteers—but the LePage people always have 15, 25 people or more," says Dan Billings, a Maine lawyer who's worked for the state GOP.

There was also a grassroots push by LePage supporters to revive GOP party committees in small towns and rural areas that had lain politically dormant for years. By the state GOP's convention in May—a key rallying point for the gubernatorial candidates—committee delegates enthusiastic about the state's conservative resurgence helped pack the event, with many observing that LePage's supporters outnumbered the rest. (LePage's campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

But the biggest upheaval of the convention was when a small group of delegates from Knox County—led by Cowan of the Constitutionalists, as well as a former consultant for the LePage campaign—managed to pass a new party platform with a hodgepodge of radical provisions. Reading out the entire proposal—which included calls to "discard political correctness," "investigate collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth," "repeal and prohibit any participation in efforts to establish a one world government," and return to "Austrian-style economics," in the manner of Ron Paul-style libertarianism—the Knox Republicans drew a standing ovation.

The national media grasped onto the platform coup, declaring it a sign that the tea party had "hijacked" the Maine GOP, leading some Republicans to feel a bit queasy about what they had just signed onto. Billings, the GOP lawyer, blasted the document as "wack job pablum" and "nutcase stuff" to the local media. "Most people didn't necessarily really know what they were voting for," says Matt Gagnon, editor of PineTreePolitics.com and a GOP strategist originally from the state. "They were kind of tired of the establishment—they didn't necessarily read 'Page three, subparagraph four.'" Upon closer examination, "there was a bit of a hangover—'Oh God, what have we done?'" says Andrew Ian Dodge, Maine's coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots.

But others saw the convention as a major turning point for the LePage and his supporters. "It was the first indicator that [LePage] did have some numbers and some clout," says Ted O'Meara, a former chair of the state GOP. "There are a lot of places where the party was weak and didn't have organization…but you had some willing activists."

Fond of waving a copy of the Constitution in the air to conclude his primary debates, LePage began to expand his quiet but devoted following. Operating on a shoestring budget, the campaign began to marshal volunteers from all quarters—not just tea party sympathizers, but also supporters from Waterville and Marden's employees who served as shock troops on the ground. Shortly before the primary, his volunteer army hand-delivered a poster-sized pamphlet to some 30,000 potential voters. "They picked volunteers very carefully, who were close to the candidate…[who] built an infrastructure," says Gagnon. "The entire operation was built on volunteers knocking on your neighbor's door."

Sensing LePage could appeal to those who had long abandoned the state GOP, his campaign targeted voters that his rivals had tended to overlook. Partly due to his push, there was record turnout for the primary election, with the highest turnout for Republicans since 1952. And the voters who had come back to the fold voted decisively for LePage, who won 38 percent, beating all of his 6 opponents by at least a two-to-one ratio. "We thought people coming back and enrolling would be our kind of people," says Mark Pittman, Mills' former campaign manager. "We were shocked when they came back and showed us that was wrong, so wrong."

LePage is now counting on his anti-tax message and grassroots following to carry him through the general election. For months, he's led the polls by double digits: a recent poll, in mid-September, found him pulling in 37 percent of the vote over his main rival, Democratic Libby Mitchell, who received 25 percent, and independent Cutler, who got 11 percent. The majority leader of the state Senate, Mitchell has struggled to gain a foothold in an anti-establishment year that has not only pinned the blame on Washington, but also on Augusta Democrats who've been in power for over a decade. His campaign is also hoping that the state's Franco-American population, which generally skews Democratic, will come out to vote for one of their own.

The question now is whether LePage's ragefests will end up driving away the more moderate voters who've yet to be won over by the campaign. Previous media catastrophes have had little impact: During a whistle-stop train tour in July, LePage lashed out against a Democratic operative and reporters who hounded him about teaching creationism in schools—exactly the kind of social issue that he'd been hoping to avoid. (He says it'd be OK, citing his Catholic upbringing, but has since hedged on the issue.) Though critics quickly labeled the trip a "trainwreck," LePage managed to emerge mostly unscathed in the polls.

But there are some signs that the latest round of volleys—sparked by the revelation that his wife has illegally claimed a homestead tax exemption in two states—could end up cutting into his lead. The latest polling in the race, put out last week, shows LePage and Mitchell in a dead heat. Critics also point out that LePage's tendency to cast stones at his enemies could lead to complete gridlock with the majority Democratic state legislature. While LePage has touted his ability to work with a Democratic city council as Waterville mayor, former council members warn that he relentlessly threatened vetoes even after concessions were made in his favor. Even some tea party activists have been put off his confrontational, ham-fisted behavior. "He expects the tea party to be his bitches and I'm not...they seem to think the more thuggish he is, the better he does," says Dodge of the Tea Party Patriots. "They don't understand there's a difference between running and governing."

Ultimately, LePage's outbursts and media showdowns are likely to endear him even more to his most devoted followers. "That's exactly why they're voting for him—they want to see things stirred up," says Mills. Even so, he notes, the hot-headed Republican would probably have more to gain by taking things down a notch. LePage is "on a winning glide path…with nothing to lose by tempering his personality and remarks, trying to come across as more of a statesman," Mills adds. "My advice to him is to cool it."

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