Both fans and critics of President Obama and the nation’s new health insurance reform law plan to make their voices heard Thursday when Obama makes his first visit to Portland as president.

Obama will speak about health care reform Thursday afternoon at the Portland Exposition Building. Free tickets will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis in the lobby of the Expo beginning at 11 a.m. today.

Obama plans to fly aboard Air Force One to Pease Air National Guard Base in Portsmouth, N.H., then take a helicopter ride in Marine One to the Portland International Jetport. The helicopter will shuttle him to a Democratic fundraiser in Boston later Thursday.

There will be no public access to Obama at the airport. But his appearance at the Expo is sure to draw a crowd.

“People are excited to see him,” said Mary Erin Casale, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party. The party was not organizing an official rally, but it hosted a sign-making party Tuesday night for volunteers who plan to welcome Obama to the Expo.

“They support health care reform and want to hear him talk about it,” Casale said of Maine’s Democrats. “I think we’ve been a leader in health care reform, and (Obama’s visit) shows how important Maine is.”

Critics also are excited about the opportunity to make a statement in front of Obama and the national media.

“It should be a pretty good crowd,” said Chris Cinquemani, spokesman for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, an opponent of what he calls Obamacare. “The moment that it was announced he was coming, my inbox started chiming.”

The center and other conservative groups were organizing a protest to take place outside the Expo, although details weren’t final, they said Tuesday.

Ben Kelleher, chairman of the Maine College Republicans chapter at the University of Maine in Orono, said he plans to come down to Portland, and that others will come from as far as Presque Isle to join in.

“There are a lot of disenfranchised conservatives and libertarians,” Kelleher said. “We’re hoping for a good venue to have a grass-roots rally just to let people know what we think.”

The city-owned Expo can seat as many as 4,500. People who show up to get tickets can get two each.

Doors to the Expo will open at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, and Obama is expected to speak at 3:25 p.m.

Gov. John Baldacci and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, all Democrats, plan to attend, and at least some of the Democratic candidates for governor will be there.

Pingree and Baldacci have been getting many requests for tickets to the event, although each is being given a limited number to distribute, officials said.

“We got a couple dozen (tickets) or something like that,” said Willy Ritch, spokesman for Pingree, who represents the Portland area and was a strong advocate for health care reform in the House.

About 2,700 people signed up on Pingree’s Web site for more information about tickets, and another 500 requested tickets directly, Ritch said.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]