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MESSAGE TO MIDDLE CLASS

Edwards courts Mainers as days on stump dwindle

BANGOR -- The closeness of the presidential race was in full display yesterday, as John Edwards spent a portion of the final 72 hours of the campaign visiting northern Maine in hopes of winning the area's lone Electoral College vote.

The Democratic vice presidential nominee, between stops in the potentially more lucrative battleground states of Ohio and Florida, trekked to Bangor to rally voters in the state's Second Congressional District. In a region affected by mill closings and other economic ailments, the North Carolina senator sought to drive home his ticket's message of hope for the middle class by casting himself as their champion, and by appearing on stage with his father and mother, the former mill worker and Postal Service employee who are regulars in his stump speech.

"You cannot stand up for big drug companies, big insurance companies, big HMOs, Halliburton, big oil companies, and the Saudi royal family and still fight for the American people," Edwards, referring to the Republican ticket, told a relatively small crowd of several hundred clustered on the banks of the Penobscot River. "You deserve a president who's actually going to fight for you, every single day. John Kerry is that president."

In the folksy manner that is a hallmark of his campaign appearances, Edwards exhorted the crowd to join him as he joked about his favorite moment from the debates between Kerry and President Bush. He said it came during the second of the three meetings, a town hall meeting in St. Louis, when the president asked, "Is my time up?"

"One man in this campaign has told the truth about the struggles of the middle class, the economy, and the loss of all these jobs, right?" Edwards asked. "Yes," the crowd yelled in response, as it did with each subsequent question. "One man has told the truth about the health care crisis, right? One man has told the truth about Iraq, right? Listen, come Tuesday, the American people are going to answer George Bush's question for him, and they're going to say, 'Yes, George Bush, your time is up, you're going back to Texas. It's time for a fresh start with President John Kerry.' "

Maine offers four electoral votes. Under state law, it awards two to the statewide winner and one apiece to the winner in each of its congressional districts. The state has not split its electoral votes since adopting that system in 1969.

Four years ago, Democrat Al Gore won 49 percent of the statewide vote, while Bush won 44 percent. In the First Congressional District, which encompasses the capital of Augusta and the southeastern coast, Gore won by a comfortable 27,675 votes. Yet in the Second District, which encompasses the bulk of the state from the New Hampshire border to Canada and down the northeastern coast, he won by 5,660 votes.

Among the state's 1.27 million residents, some 31 percent are registered Democrats, 29 percent are registered Republicans, and 39 percent are declared unaffiliated or supporters of minor parties. Both of the state's House members, Tom Allen and Michael Michaud, are Democrats, while both of its US senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are Republicans.

Bush campaigned in Bangor Sept. 23, and paid a surprise call on troops headed to Iraq when he boarded their charter plane as it stopped at Bangor International Airport on a refueling stop. His wife, Laura, also attended a rally in Lewiston, part of the Second District. Edwards has visited the state three times, while his wife, Elizabeth, has campaigned twice in Maine.

In introducing the senator, Governor John Baldacci, a fellow Democrat, implored the crowd to vote Tuesday.

"We need your help. It's a close election, and some people say it's closer than 2000," he said. "We need to make sure that Maine gets in the right column. We need to make sure that Maine is Kerry-Edwards country when they do the map at night."

Edwards opened on a somber tone, attacking terrorist Osama bin Laden, who a day earlier had been seen in a new videotape admitting he was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and addressing American voters just days before the first presidential election since that tragedy.

"Any state that does not mess with our security has naturally guaranteed its own security," bin Laden said.

Edwards replied: "We, as Americans, Democrats, Republicans, independents, we have a very clear message for Osama bin Laden: We are going to hunt him down and hold him accountable for what he did on Sept. 11th. And we are united in that effort, and we are united in winning the war on terror."

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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