© 1996 Casco Bay Weekly | By Al Diamon | March 14, 1996

Politics and Other Mistakes

That kind of girl

Quit smirking. It's time to seriously consider the possibility Dale McCormick could win the Democratic nomination for Congress in Maine's 1st District.

McCormick, a state senator from Hallowell, isn't much of a public speaker. Her voice has a tendency to wander into whininess. Her ability to charm the press is nonexistent. Her TV presence is dull. Her legislative skills are questionable. And McCormick is more than 50 percent of the reason a seasoned political observer recently referred to the 1st District race as "charismatically challenged."

McCormick is a liberal. She's pro-choice and pro-gay rights. She's Maine's chief proponent of a universal health care system. She's supported increased spending on welfare and higher taxes on business.

Add to that the apparently irresistible impulse that seems to overcome virtually every heterosexual in politics to make snide references to her sexual orientation (holy cow, she's a lesbian!), and you have the type of target the religious right fervently prays for.

So it's no wonder most pundits figure former Portland city councilor Tom Allen should have little trouble defeating McCormick for the Democratic nomination. Allen, coming off a credible second-place finish in the 1994 gubernatorial primary, has decent name recognition. He's worked hard to mend fences and secure support from the party establishment. Although his positions on issues don't differ much from McCormick's, his image is that of a moderate. He looks like the kind of guy who'll appeal to slightly-right-of-center yuppies in the Portland suburbs, a crucial voting block in general elections. It also doesn't hurt that he's an old friend of Bill Clinton's.

Allen did start the race with a few negatives. He's a monotonous public speaker in the Joe Brennan tradition. His gubernatorial campaign developed a reputation for thin skin and thick heads. He always displays just enough discomfort in public situations to raise questions about whether he's buying his shorts a size too small.

But those sorts of problems are easy to brush aside when Allen's fundraising abilities are considered. He tapped into a rich vein of lawyers and businesspeople to fund his '94 race, and is mining those sources again in '96. The conventional wisdom had it that Allen would be able to spend whatever it took to leave McCormick's grassroots (a politically correct term meaning "low budget") campaign in the dust.

It hasn't quite worked out that way. At least, not so far.

McCormick raised a quarter-million dollars while Allen was still practicing his boyish gap-toothed grin in front of the mirror. Rumor has it she's now approaching the half-million mark. Allen's campaign is said to be struggling along in the low six-figure range. Much of McCormick's money is coming from gay and lesbian organizations. But Allen can't complain about that, because he's supposed to be a supporter of gay rights. A lot of her money comes from out of state. Allen can't complain about that either, because his best bets for campaign cash are lawyers and other weasels from away.

Allen's slow start in fundraising hurt his image, but few Democratic activists doubt he'll narrow the money gap by the time the primary approaches in June. What many of those activists are starting to wonder is whether Allen's organization will be functioning smoothly enough by election day to overcome the edge McCormick is getting from her superb campaign machine.

For example, at Portland's Democratic caucus on Feb. 25, Allen needed to make a good showing. After all, Portland is his home town, and expectations were he would have the backing of the local party regulars wrapped up. On first impression, that seemed to be true. There were 10 Allen signs in the Portland High School gym for every lonely McCormick poster. Allen had at least three times as many balloons as there were people in the building. But when the two candidates addressed the caucus, McCormick pulled off a surprise. Her supporters appeared to outnumber Allen's. Her demonstration was noisier and more enthusiastic than Allen's. Her crowd was carefully salted with prominent Portland Democrats wearing McCormick stickers.

Neither candidate gave the sort of speech that results in requests for copies from "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations." But McCormick's campaign conveyed the impression of being a lot more energetic and organized. Allen's people filed out of the gym with glassy-eyed expressions appropriate for après sucker punch.

Allen's problems aren't yet sufficient to wipe out his chances of winning the nomination. Even those Democrats favorably impressed with McCormick's persistence and drive have questions about her ability to beat Republican Congressman Jim Longley in the general election. Allen, like Bob Dole, still has an opportunity to convince less than enthusiastic party members to back him by arguing he's more electable.

But he'd better start soon. McCormick is already devoting a fair amount of her stump speech to pointing out her string of victorious legislative campaigns in what she characterizes as a conservative Republican district. If Allen procrastinates, as he did with fundraising, or underestimates, as he did with the Portland caucus, he may find McCormick has established her image as a winner. If that happens, it'll put an end to the smirking.

At least until November.

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