YARMOUTH – On a gray Sunday afternoon inside a log cabin, a dozen miles north of where former President Clinton is scheduled to speak later in the evening to a gym full of Democrats, the weekly meeting of the Cumberland County Tea Party Patriots is about to come to order.

In front of this American Legion Post 91 on Main Street, near an old artillery piece, are two flags set in concrete buckets. The Maine state flag is blue. The Gadsden flag — the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me” under a coiled rattlesnake — is yellow.

A sign welcomes visitors.

“This is not a secretive organization,” says Jack Wibby, a retired high school physics teacher who grew up in Bangor, lived on Littlejohn Island in Yarmouth for 28 years, then moved to Gray, in part, because a townwide revaluation had doubled his property tax bill. “We usually have a discussion about something, and the hospitality committee is great.”

Indeed, a folding table on one side of 40 yellow straight-backed chairs is loaded with homemade baked goods. Opposite that table is another bearing campaign literature — most prominently for Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage and Republican 1st District Congressional candidate Dean Scontras — along with bumper stickers and pocket-sized reprints of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, complete with index.

Affixed to the back of each pamphlet is a label inviting the reader to “Join Us In Restoring the Constitution,” along with contact information for the Maine Patriots and Maine ReFounders, the two largest tea party organizations in the state, each claiming a membership of close to 900.

“Our group is basically a chapter of the Maine Patriots,” says Wibby, dressed casually in jeans and a fleece vest.

Programs from the previous Sunday’s tea party rally in Westbrook’s Riverbank Park are also available, with a list of speakers as well as lyrics to patriotic songs. Three empty coolers — two small and one tall — stand guard over the pamphlets. The small coolers, one red and one blue, are labeled, respectively, “Republican Kool-Aid” and “Democratic Kool-Aid.”

A barrel-shaped yellow cooler dwarfs the other two and proclaims its contents “Liberty TEA” with the last three letters red, white and blue.

“Those three coolers,” says Robert Horr, “pretty much sum us up.”

ACTIVISTS REWRITE GOP PLATFORM

The only formally dressed person in the room, Horr wears a black suit and red tie. He is the group’s chairman, and he runs a 90-minute meeting sandwiched around a half-hour social break.

“The one that matters, the biggest one, is Liberty Tea,” he tells a crowd of 28 mostly male, mostly older listeners. “It’s about freedom. People have the right to live their life as they see fit. We need laws making sure we are protected from our neighbors, not ourselves.”

Horr, grinning slightly, says his name and face have been in the newspaper before. Sure enough, a quick search turns up a story from late in the 2008 election season about a controversial 8-foot-by-12-foot sign Horr erected in his driveway in New Gloucester.

Clearly visible from busy Route 100, the sign featured life-size representations of Barack Obama, wearing a turban and the traditional dress of a Somali elder, and John McCain, dressed in a military flight suit. Accompanying Obama’s image were the words “No U.S. Military Service” and above it his full name, Barack Hussein Obama. Alongside McCain’s picture were his Navy rank, a list of medals and commendations, and his full name, John Sidney McCain III.

Like-minded observers loved it. Others were appalled. But it certainly garnered attention, which, two years later, is exactly what is happening with the tea party movement, both in Maine and across the country.

At the state convention in May, conservative activists from Knox County rewrote the Republican platform into one rife with such tea party rhetoric as regaining state sovereignty, discarding political correctness, sealing the border, clarifying that health care is not a right and investigating the collusion between government and industry in the global warming “myth.”

EXPERT: LEPAGE TYPICAL TEA PARTIER

One month later, in a Republican gubernatorial primary that included candidates with both more money and more moderate views, LePage, the gravel-voiced mayor of Waterville, defied polling predictions and received more votes than the combined total of his two nearest competitors, Les Otten and Peter Mills.

“LePage saw an opportunity that very few people saw in the primaries: to go out and find these people and say what they wanted to hear,” said Brian Duff, an associate professor of political science at the University of New England.

“It wasn’t difficult for him because I think he believes in it himself. Back in that primary, you had a bunch of millionaires who thought they were going to run TV ads and win. Well, Le-Page did it another way, and it worked really well.”

Duff said LePage represents, in microcosm, a national tea party movement that leads with its gut. He says what he thinks. Doesn’t filter his words. Sounds fed up with government.

“On a visceral level, he is kind of appealing,” Duff said. “We all think there’s a lot of nonsense in government.”

How well that will play out in the general election may be a different story. LePage’s large lead in early polls evaporated after a series of incidents that included swearing at a press conference, threatening (seemingly in jest) to punch a reporter and expressing contempt for President Obama.

“The people who show up in primaries tend to be very, very motivated and usually committed to one candidate or another,” said Ron Schmidt, chair of the University of Southern Maine’s political science department. “That’s not necessarily the people who show up on Election Day.”

Still, LePage remains a favored son of the tea party, even though, at a forum early last month, he tried to distance himself by saying, “I didn’t seek them; they’re supporting me.”

Back in the log cabin, Jack Wibby is giving instructions on making phone calls, writing letters to the editor, calling unenrolled voters — “Talk to the party and find out who they are” — and going door to door. Wibby is also communications director of Maine Taxpayers United, a group created in 2007 from the folks who backed the Maine Taxpayer Bill of Rights initiative a year earlier.

The United group endorses candidates, including LePage, who is listed on its board of directors, but the tea party does not, which leads to an objection as Libby advises volunteers to say “I’m supporting Dean Scontras” or “I’m supporting Paul LePage” when they knock on doors.

SNOWE MAY FACE CHALLENGE

Andrew Ian Dodge, statewide coordinator of the tea party movement, stands up. A former heavy metal disc jockey at Colby College as well as a former chairman of the Maine Young Republicans, Dodge calls himself a social libertarian. He blogs and writes regularly. He wears a black shirt with sleeves rolled up, black pants and black boots. His black hair is pulled back into a small ponytail, revealing a jewel in his left earlobe.

Dodge, now 42, has been interested and involved in politics since he was 12, and says he lost his first girlfriend because she liked independent John Anderson in the 1980 presidential election, and Dodge preferred Ronald Reagan.

“The tea party is not about pushing candidates,” Dodge says. “It’s about about educating people about what’s out there. If a Republican who we help, or who we think is sound, goes off the boil, they’re going to be leaned on as someone who never was.”

Yes, Sen. Olympia Snowe, up for re-election to a fourth term in 2012, Dodge is talking about you. In a state with a history of such moderate Republicans as Margaret Chase Smith and Bill Cohen, Snowe may find herself with a primary challenger who could point to the recent falls of incumbents Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Utah Sen. Robert Bennett and Delaware Rep. Michael Castle, none of whom won their party’s Senate nomination.

Dodge says a portion of a recent $1 million donation to the national Tea Party Patriots — which claims affiliation with 2,800 organizations — will find its way to Maine, but he cannot say more until the grant becomes official, which could be as early as today.

On Wednesday, Dodge is scheduled to give a lecture about the tea party movement at a symposium for high school students organized by the University of New Hampshire. He said the entire movement would not exist without social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

“It allowed instant communication with a vast number of people all across the country,” Dodge says. “I hate to use the word ’empower,’ but it’s accurate. We empowered people to express their opinions publicly. They thought there would be no one who agreed with them.”

3,000 MAINERS ACTIVE IN MOVEMENT

Back in the log cabin, after a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, Horr welcomes newcomers. A man says he is from the People’s Republic of Portland, a dig at the left-leaning political bent of Maine’s largest city. Another, here with his wife, says he is from Cumberland, attending on behalf of their grandchildren.

“They’re already $65,000 in debt,” someone calls out from the crowd.

Money — particularly that owed by the federal government and taxed from its citizens — is a popular topic for tea partiers. For many, it is the only topic.

Lower taxes. Smaller government. Free markets. Repeat.

“The tea party movement is really just taking what is an essential piece of Republican rhetoric, which is that government doesn’t work and we need to shrink it and cut taxes,” said Duff, the UNE political scientist. “It’s almost like taking that one note and playing it over and over, perfecting it like a Neil Young guitar solo.”

A joint Wall Street Journal/NBC News national poll released last week found that 71 percent of Republicans described themselves as tea party supporters. Dodge said he figures Maine is home to roughly 3,000 active tea party members and many more who are silent, but sympathetic to the cause.

LOOKING AHEAD TO NOV. 3

A statewide tea party rally is scheduled in Augusta on Oct. 30, the Saturday before the election.

“We’re looking to change the direction of the country,” says Judy Hurst of Old Orchard Beach. “It’s going downhill fast.”

Hurst said she was disturbed by the lack of media attention following a large tea party gathering last March in Washington, D.C. “There was no mention in the press. It almost seemed like a Big Brother thing. Fox News was the only one who picked it up.”

She says she’s a registered Republican, “but not proud of it.”

A dozen miles south of Yarmouth, at the Democratic rally for Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell headlined by Clinton, the former president warned against dismissing members of the tea party movement.

“They’re not all far right-wing fringe voters,” Clinton said. “They just feel like everything big in America has shafted them. Big government, big business. Everyone that’s big looks after themselves, and they’re doing all right in this lousy economy, and nobody has helped them.”

Of course, Clinton couldn’t resist pointing out a few of the more eccentric candidates backed by the tea party, including “that wrestling federation lady in Connecticut and the witchcraft lady in Delaware,” a reference to Republican Senate candidates Linda McMahon and Christine O’Donnell.

“So far,” Clinton said, “they’ve gathered up about everybody for this tea party but the Mad Hatter and Alice in Wonderland.”

Scott K. Fish worked on Republican Steve Abbott’s failed gubernatorial primary campaign and writes the blog As Maine Goes from a “center-right” point of view.

“I don’t know of any political movement that doesn’t have some crackpots,” Fish said. “If (Democrats) believe that the tea party is simply crackpots, great. Go with it. They’ll find out on Nov. 2.”

And what might an administration led by tea party winners look like on Nov. 3? Duff, the UNE political scientist, described a situation where the people in charge are those who don’t think government works well.

“The results can be devastating,” he said. “What happens in those cases is, nobody really regulates big business, because they trust big business more than they trust government. And when nobody regulates them, big business can get away with things.

“I think we saw that on Wall Street in the disaster with derivatives and in the Gulf of Mexico with the BP oil spill. Those are cases of ineffective regulation. Even the disaster in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, that is a federal responsibility to keep that levee going. But when you have underfunded federal agencies, and agencies run by people who don’t really believe in the task, then the work doesn’t get done very well.”

RHETORIC WITH DEEP ROOTS

Duff said people in general, and Mainers in particular, believe that government plays an important role in society, particularly in hard times.

“They don’t want to see people kicked off unemployment insurance, they don’t want to see children going hungry, teachers getting fired, schools getting overcrowded,” he said. “They don’t want to see that.”

Duff said the notion of government as enemy goes back at least four decades. Many scholars, he said, trace it to the civil rights movement. Reagan fanned its flames with exaggerations, if not downright fabrications, of a Chicago welfare queen with multiple names, addresses and Social Security cards cheating the government out of “over $150,000.”

“There’s this deep anxiety that the government is going to take from me and give it to someone else,” Duff said. “That’s an old sentiment, and the tea party seems to be tapping into it.”

On the back steps of the log cabin, the meeting over, Marie Doucette, 79, of Saco is saying goodbye to Hurst, who wears a patriotic sweater over her tea party T-shirt.

“I certainly think the liberals don’t think much of us,” Doucette says. “And I don’t think some of the Republican politicians think much of us. But,” and here she pauses to smile, “they’re going to learn.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be reached at 791-6425 or at:

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