PORTLAND, Maine -- Some 15,000 Democrats will gather tomorrow in 450 schools, town halls and fire stations for precinct caucuses that will have almost nothing to do with the final selection of a presidential nominee -- unless Paul E. Tsongas stumbles.
The former senator from Massachusetts is heavily favored to follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980, Gary Hart in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 by converting his success in the New Hampshire primary into another success here. But because there is no reliable way to poll likely caucus participants, there remains the shadow of a doubt.
Mr. Tsongas can expect little bounce from winning in another New England state. But should he lose, that defeat would be taken in the political community as evidence that his appeal is even more limited than the conventional wisdom already holds. That threat is serious enough that the Tsongas campaign has sent about 50 more young organizers into the state in the last few days to work on getting his supporters to the caucuses.
Mr. Tsongas' principal competition here is supposed to come from Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who has the endorsements of more Democratic elected officials than any other candidate and an organization that has sent several mailings to 10,000 Democrats likely to attend the meetings. Unlike Mr. Tsongas, who flew into the state for a rally Thursday night at Bangor, Mr. Clinton has scheduled no personal appearances in Maine since he placed second in New Hampshire.
The most visibly active candidate is former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California, who is spending five days stumping the state with his message of revolution against a political system he considers corrupt. But Mr. Brown's greatest asset here may be his opposition to nuclear power plants, a position that has earned him the backing of a liberal bloc of Maine Democrats who consider the nuclear issue overriding.
Mr. Brown is expected to win here, but veteran Democrats say he is getting the backing of many of the same people who rallied around the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in 1988, when he received a surprise 27 percent of the vote to 42 percent for Mr. Dukakis. Because the universe of voters is so small, party leaders say, it is possible for even a small group to make an attention-getting impact.
The other potential hazard to Mr. Tsongas lies in the possibility of a large vote for delegates to remain uncommitted as an expression of dissatisfaction with the present field.
Neither Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska nor Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa has made a serious effort here.
The Republicans also hold caucuses this weekend, but they are spread out over three days and President Bush has no serious challenge.
The Democrats will be choosing 3,500 delegates to a state convention in May at which 23 delegates to the national convention will be apportioned.