The Maine Republican Party will sponsor nine forums for U.S. Senate candidates around the state over the next nine weeks.

It’s an unusual series of campaign events that GOP leaders hope will enable the party’s six candidates to reach a statewide audience in an unusually short time. The June 12 primary is just 11 weeks away, yet most of the candidates didn’t even consider running until Sen. Olympia Snowe announced her retirement a month ago.

Charlie Webster, the state GOP chairman, said candidates won’t be able to get to many of the smaller community forums that are more typical of statewide campaigns.

“This way, there will be a larger turnout. We’ll spend a little money to advertise, and hopefully a couple hundred people will show up to (each of) these forums,” he said.

He said he expects the candidates to attend the regional forums to allow time to raise funds and organize.

The forums will look somewhat like the GOP’s presidential primary debates, with moderators and audience members asking questions of the candidates. Volunteers created a website — www.GOPforME.com — to publicize the forums and gather questions from voters.

The first forum will be held April 5 in Presque Isle. Most of the other events will be held on Friday evenings.

“Word is going to get around real fast. It already is on the grapevine in Aroostook County,” said Hayes Gahagan, chairman of the county’s Republican Committee. Gahagan said he expects 200 to 300 people to attend the forum next week. He also expects candidates to come up for other events.

Secretary of State Charlie Summers has already met with the Aroostook County Republican Committee, and former state Sen. Rick Bennett and state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin have asked to speak to the party leaders there soon, Gahagan said.

Summers and Poliquin are well known in the county, after speaking to community groups there over the past year, Gahagan said.

The Democratic Party isn’t planning a formal series of debates. Its candidates don’t have the same challenge as the Republicans. The four candidates were all campaigning well before Snowe made her announcement Feb. 28.

“They’ve been out and about for months,” said Lizzy Reinholdt, spokeswoman for the Maine Democratic Party.

Local groups, including county Democratic committees, are planning forums and debates, Reinholdt said.

The Democratic candidates will have their first formal debate on Saturday in Portland. The Portland Club will host the forum from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Most of the candidates also are scheduled to appear at a League of Young Voters forum April 15 at Lucid Stage in Portland.

The six Republican candidates are Bennett, businessman Scott D’Amboise, state Sen. Debra Plowman, Poliquin, Attorney General William Schneider, and Summers.

The Democratic candidates are state Sen. Cynthia Dill, former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, state Rep. Jon Hinck, and Benjamin Pollard, a businessman.

State House Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]