AUGUSTA – Maine’s four Democratic U.S. Senate candidates took the stage at the party’s state convention Saturday, promising not to back away from a fight with Republicans or former Gov. Angus King.

Hundreds of party activists from around the state filled the Augusta Civic Center Saturday for the second day of the three-day event, part business meeting and part political rally. The convention provided the biggest and most important stage yet for the four U.S. Senate candidates seeking the party’s nomination in the June 12 primary.

The candidates appealed for support and took shots at Republicans and the tea party for causing gridlock in Washington and catering to the rich at the expense of working people. They also took on King, urging Democrats not to settle for an independent who doesn’t share all of the party’s values.

State Sen. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth spoke about her background as a civil rights attorney, saying she will “go toe to toe with anybody, even guys with big money and a big name.”

Dill urged the Democrats not to shy from a fight with King out of fear that it could help the Republican candidate win.

“If we concede this seat out of fear, fear will forever guide us and we will no longer be the party of hope,” she said.

Dill called King a “misnamed independent” who has a record of not supporting working families. “It is Democrats who can stop this race to the bottom,” she said. “It’s not Democrats who are failing the nation, nor is it we who should back away from our platform. The Republican Party is unhinged, unreasonable and responsible for the Washington gridlock.”

Former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap of Old Town said he is running to help struggling, hardworking people and provide opportunities for young Mainers.

“Maybe somebody should be thinking about the working families and not the millionaires,” he said.

He also warned against giving the race to King, saying Democrats should not “settle for something less to prevent something worse. … Meeting the tea party halfway will still take us back half a century, and you can bet they will not stop there.”

Dunlap brought the delegates to their feet, pounding the podium and urging them to keep standing up for people who are cold, hungry or poor.

“I will stand for you. Will you stand with the poor? Will you stand for the sick? Will you stand for the desperate? Will you stand with me?”

Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland highlighted his record as a co-founder of Greenpeace, a lawyer who took on big corporations such as Exxon and a lawmaker who has worked for cleaner air and water.

Hinck said King supports Republican causes and may give Republicans a majority in the Senate because he won’t say which party he would caucus with. And Republicans, he told the crowd, are the people responsible for environmental destruction, the war on women and mistakes such as the Iraq War and the Bush tax cuts.

“Let’s not let the party who championed those mistakes tell us how to fix it. We’ll do it,” Hinck said. “I don’t even want to hear someone who might want to caucus with that party tell us how to fix it. … We are the party that recognizes we are in this together.”

Portland businessman Benjamin Pollard spoke about the idealism that led him to run as the unconventional alternative in the race.

“Clearly I’m very different from the other candidates who have spoken to you,” said Pollard, who did not have sign-waving supporters accompany him to the stage and asked the crowd to hold its applause until the end.

Pollard said he wants to promote peace and ecological sustainability. “We are so far on the wrong track right now in the damage we are doing to the Earth and each other. We really need to go in a dramatically different direction.”

While Pollard didn’t criticize King, he said he is best equipped to beat him. “We need somebody different. I am different,” he said.

Also Saturday, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley delivered the convention’s keynote speech and urged Maine Democrats to help send President Obama back to the White House this fall.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would take America back to the policies of George W. Bush, O’Malley said.

“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be … I say we move forward with Barack Obama,” he said, drawing cheers from the delegates.

O’Malley, considered a potential presidential candidate in 2016, drew more applause when he referred to the Republicans in Washington as the “constipation Congress” who “wouldn’t pass gas if they might help our president heal our economy.”

And delegates clapped and cheered when O’Malley took aim at Maine Gov. Paul LePage, calling him one of the tea party governors that he and other national leaders are working to replace over the next two years.

“I believe you can win back your governor’s office, and the Democratic Governor’s Association wants to see you do that in the not so distant future,” he said.

O’Malley’s visit drew a critical news release from LePage’s political adviser, Brent Littlefield.

The release included details of tax and spending increases in Maryland during O’Malley’s term and featured a Maryland county executive talking about the harm to working families.

“Martin O’Malley’s record is full of massive taxes and failed economics,” the news release said.

After his speech, O’Malley responded by saying Maryland has seen strong job growth and big improvements in education because of investments his administration made. He said LePage is one of the “tea party governors who worship the false idol of tax cuts. … Let’s see which of us has a better record of job growth in the days ahead.”

The party’s convention concludes today with the election of national committee members and other business.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com