Vermont eyes presidential primary

Williston expects huge turnout for March election

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

In less than a week, Vermonters will get their say in what is arguably the most exciting election season in recent memory. Democratic voters will get their choice between two frontrunners: Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.

The race has been neck and neck since the New Hampshire primary, with both senators trying to outdo each other in the delegate count. Vermont carries 15 Democratic delegates, as well as eight superdelegates.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona is all but a shoe-in, with no real competition left in the delegate count. Vermont carries 17 Republican delegates.

Voting takes place on Town Meeting Day, March 4.

Gearing up to vote

Williston town officials are getting ready for a huge March election. Deb Beckett, Williston town clerk, says the interest in this election is much higher than usual.

"For March elections, we usually see 27 to 30 percent of eligible voters," Beckett said. "We expect to see that much, much higher."

She said a good indicator of voter turnout is the number of early votes that have come in. As recently as Monday, Beckett said she had received 350 absentee ballots. Since Friday, she had registered more than 40 new Williston voters.

Democrats battling for nomination

Clinton's campaign has quickly mobilized in the Champlain Valley in the weeks before the March 4 primary, said Carly Lindauer, a campaign spokesperson.

Lindauer described herself as a "transient campaigner," having worked in the New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Missouri campaigns.

"I think we have a really great base of support in (Vermont)," Lindauer said.

Lindauer said the campaign is "feeling good" about its chances in Vermont, even when a poll released on Saturday — conducted by American Research Group Inc. — has 60 percent of Vermont Democratic respondents favoring Obama, with 34 percent favoring Clinton.

Clinton volunteer and Williston resident Marlene O'Brien looked long and hard at all the Democratic candidates and their issues before deciding that Hillary Clinton was her choice.

"(Clinton) is the only one out there who brings real solutions to real problems that we face," O'Brien said.

O'Brien has canvassed local neighborhoods and made numerous phone calls for the Clinton campaign. She said there has been some "amazingly positive" reactions, as well as lots of grassroots action in the state.

The Clinton campaign has only recently opened offices in Vermont. An office opened in South Burlington on Friday, Feb. 22 and one in Rutland opened Tuesday. Lindauer said they have a full-time staff operating in the state.

The Obama Campaign has seven offices throughout the state, most of which opened early last week, according to Obama campaign spokesperson Ted Brady.

However, Clinton has had high profile Vermont politicians stumping on her behalf for quite some time, including former Gov. Madeleine Kunin and current Speaker of the House Gaye Symington, D-Jericho.

O'Brien has been a staunch Clinton supporter since before the New Hampshire primary, even though the New York senator's campaign has been slow to canvass the state.

"I think we could always have started earlier, but who would've thunk?" she said.

Said Lindauer, "We're going to work hard on the senator's behalf. She's working hard everywhere."

Brady, a Williston resident, is encouraged by the recent poll numbers for his candidate and feels strongly about the Illinois senator's chances next week.

"Sen. Obama's campaign is going to make sure that the voice of every Vermonter is heard and the message of hope and change is heard loud and clear," Brady said.

Brady, who works for Sen. Patrick Leahy at his Montpelier office, is taking a week off from work to campaign on Obama's behalf. He said the volunteer effort for Obama is strong throughout the state.

"Volunteers are talking to neighbors, calling their friends, knocking on doors, trying to spread the message of hope and change that Senator Obama inspires," Brady said.

Vermont doesn't carry the high delegate count of larger states such as Texas and Ohio, which also have primaries on March 4, but Brady said Obama cares about every state.

"The senator is committed to campaigning in every state," he said. "The main message here is that Vermont matters in the national primaries."

Despite the campaign office presence of Clinton and Obama, neither Lindauer nor Brady could confirm if either candidate would visit Vermont.

Republican focus on McCain

McCain enjoys widespread Republican support throughout Vermont, according to the American Research Group poll. McCain has 73 percent of the support among Republican respondents, compared to Texas Rep. Ron Paul's 11 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 9 percent.

Williston resident Chris Roy, a co-chair of McCain's Vermont campaign, believes the Arizona senator best appeals to Vermont independents.

"His brand of Republicanism jives with Vermont's brand of Republicanism," Roy said.

McCain visited Vermont two weeks ago, on the same day former challenger and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney endorsed him.

"He felt strongly enough to come up," said Roy, a former Observer columnist who is running for a seat on the town Selectboard. "It was an opportunity for him to say 'hi' to his supporters in the state. He enjoys Vermont. A lot of his staff have Vermont ties."

Neither Huckabee nor Paul have campaign offices in the state.

And with McCain already winning far more delegates than Huckabee, his nearest competitor, Roy believes the Republican side of the primaries has already wrapped up.

"The turnout for the Democrats will probably blow the doors off the Republican turnout, because (the Democrats) have a real race there," Roy said.

Instead, McCain is gearing up for the national election in November, which is one of the reasons he made the trip to Vermont recently.

"McCain's approach to the election is really a 50-state approach," Roy said.

During his February stop in Vermont, McCain promised to visit the state again before November.