PORTLAND – Three people stood outside the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church on Congress Street, hoping to secure the signatures of those headed into the Sunday morning service.

They were collecting signatures for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who has taken out nomination papers to run for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, even though Pingree has not formally declared her candidacy.

“People are eager most of the time,” said Jim Bishop of Saco, who was collecting for a different candidate — state Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham. Bartlett hopes to run for Pingree’s seat.

Bishop was among the legions of volunteers who fanned out across the state over the weekend in a frenzied sprint to collect enough valid signatures from registered voters by March 15 in order to secure a candidate’s spot on the ballot. They represented three dozen potential candidates who have taken out nomination papers for the U.S. Senate and two House seats, most of them after Snowe turned Maine’s political landscape upside down with her surprise announcement last week that she would not run for a fourth term.

Anywhere there was a crowd, there were signature gatherers.

They showed up at Portland’s First Friday Art Walk, at the state high school basketball championships at the Cumberland County Civic Center, at concerts and at churches. They got thrown out of the Portland winter farmers market at the Maine Irish Heritage Center after shoppers got annoyed.

“The art walk was a political mosh pit,” said Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland.

Hinck was among those who did a political U-turn last week, shifting his sights from a run for the U.S. Senate to the 1st District House seat. That required him to abandon the hundreds of signatures he had already gathered for the Senate race and start from scratch.

Hinck will recycle campaign materials that he had assembled for the Senate race, but was able to repurpose some political signs left over from his run for the state House of Representatives by cutting and pasting.

Setting out to gather signatures on his home turf in Portland’s heavily Democratic West End on Sunday, Hinck asked supporters to hold on to the U.S. Senate papers, just in case.

“Anything can happen in this race,” he said.

Gathering legitimate signatures isn’t so easy. It entails getting the signatures of registered voters in the same party who live in the same district as the candidate. Volunteers often carry complicated lists, organized by city and town.

Each gatherer must have the signature lists notarized, and then municipal clerks must verify the signatures of registered voters in their communities.

The deadline to complete the task is just 10 days away. Republican and Democrat candidates must gather 1,000 valid signatures for the House seats and 2,000 for the Senate seat by March 15. Independents have until June 1.

Eleven Republicans, four Democrats and five unenrolled candidates have taken out nomination papers for the U.S. Senate seat to date. Six Republicans and eight Democrats have taken out papers for the 1st District seat, and one Republican has taken out papers to challenge U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who will run again in the 2nd District.

Pingree’s husband, S. Donald Sussman, a frequent Democratic donor, owns a 5 percent equity stake in MaineToday Media, which owns The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other Maine media outlets.

Bartlett, one of those interested in running for Pingree’s seat, said it takes about an hour to gather 20 signatures, but by Sunday morning he and his volunteers were ahead of schedule.

“The key is to be strategic,” he said.

Retired businessman Mark Gartley, a Republican from Westbrook, spent the weekend organizing his troops in six counties in his bid for the 1st District House seat. Gartley said he met with his signature gatherers in Westbrook on Sunday morning.

“It is a mad dash until the ides of March,” Gartley said.

State Sen. Jonathan Courtney, R-Sanford, who took out nomination papers for the 1st District House seat the day after Snowe’s announcement, called the process humbling.

“People are going out in the snow and the rain. It is a real honor,” Courtney said.

While the political landscape remained volatile over the weekend, with some candidates not yet formally announced and other uncertainties, Courtney said he will continue to forge ahead.

Courtney said for him there is no going back, no matter what happens.

“I owe it to them,” he said of his volunteers.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com


Correction: This story was revised at 4:20 p.m., March 5, 2012, to correct the deadline date for independent candidates to submit signatures. It is June 1.